To Sympathize Or Empathize… That Is The Question

Several years ago I was in a terrible car accident. It was a normal Thursday morning and the interstate was fairly busy as is usual for that time of morning. I was traveling with the flow of traffic, in the far right lane doing around 75 mph. There was a light drizzle falling and the roads were wet and slick as it had been raining all morning.

I hit a wet spot on the highway and hydroplaned. The car went into a violent tailspin and careened into the side wall and ricocheted back into oncoming traffic. Cars slammed into me hitting me on all four sides. It was like the car became a ping-pong ball as it was batted back and forth across the expressway …

The accident was traumatic and devastating. And while I walked away virtually unharmed three other individuals in the accident were critically injured.

I was shaken, afraid to drive and horrified that others were injured in the accident while I walked away unscathed. The one bright spot amidst the shock, tears and heartache was the understanding, devotion and genuine care displayed by my family and friends as I went through the healing process. It meant the world to me.

Several months later a friend of mine committed suicide. Once again I turned to my support system. This time, however, their response was a bit different. It wasn’t that they didn’t care per se, it’s just that they expressed their feelings a bit differently. I sensed that they couldn’t quite feel where I was coming from. They seemed to be more understanding and emotionally supportive during my car accident. Their lukewarm and slightly distant responses left me feeling confused and a little hurt.

These two experiences taught me the difference between empathy and sympathy.

The difference between empathy and sympathy

Once I was able to gain a bit of distance from the situations and view them a bit more objectively, I realized a few important factors which helped explain the conflicting responses I received.

The first thing I learned is that when people have shared or similar experiences, they have a concrete frame of reference. The situation resonates with them more.

During my car accident I heard things like, “girl, I know how you feel,” or “chile, after my car accident I felt the same way, take as much time as you need before you get behind the wheel again,” and “call me when you ready to try driving again, I’ll go with you.”

These responses came from a place of knowing how I felt in the moment. These responses were sprinkled with kindness, concern and most importantly, empathy.

The second important thing I learned is that when it comes to experiences that are foreign to others, people tend to disassociate their feelings and lean towards providing advice. This type of response–while it can appear uncaring, cold and a bit callous, truly is birth out of a place of sincere care and sympathy.

And there in lies the difference between empathizing and sympathizing. Empathy is the ability to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. It is the ability to stand in his or her shoes and endure the gut punch.

Sympathy, on the other hand, allows another person to see the situation through the lens of a spectator–similar to watching a movie. It is a place of distance and inexperience. It allows an individual to see the gut punch but not feel it. It leaves the spectator saying, “Man, that must have hurt. If I were them I would have…”

Learning to properly sympathize when you can’t empathize

The worse thing you can do during a time of turmoil is to provide unsolicited advice. Sure you mean well, but giving unsolicited advice is never a good idea. Nine times out of ten, when a person is in despair they want to feel heard and understood. As hard as it can be sometimes (most times)–simply listening to a person can be the most helpful and profoundly comforting thing you can do. When a person is in pain–emotional support always trumps practical advice.

For example, let’s say your good friend’s company is restructuring and your friend is one of the ones who is downsized and you’ve never struggled with job loss or unemployment.

Saying things like “at least you got your health,” or ” you’ve got money saved, you’ll be alright…” won’t help. These statements are accurate and your friend will bounce back, however, the true struggle may have nothing at all to do with money. He or she could be feeling betrayed, devalued, unappreciated and feel a loss of identity. Those responses don’t address how the person is feeling.

And please, please fight the temptation to provide unsolicited job leads immediately. Give them time to process the situation.

The first thing you must do in this situation is recognize that you DON’T understand what they are going through–and that is ok.

Instead of diving in head first and trying to fix it with all of your pragmatism, listen first. Try to understand how they are feeling. Try to visualize what they are saying in your mind’s eye–not how you would feel in the situation but try to imagine how they said they feel.

Then and only then should you speak. And when you do, say things that validate and address their concerns such as, “you put in so much time and energy into that job, I understand why you feel betrayed, ” or “you’re right, they should have at least given you a warning that the company was downsizing…”

If all else fails, just listening, wiping away tears and letting them know that you are here–no matter what they need…is more than enough

Here are a few steps to move from sympathizing to empathizing:

1. Draw on a parallel experience

Try to establish some sort of common ground in your mind. In the example of a friend being downsized–try relating to their feelings of rejection. We’ve all experienced rejection in some form or another. Maybe you had a bad break up with your Ex. The situations are very different but the feelings are parallel. Draw on that experience to help you empathize with what they are feeling.

2. Establish a habit of finding common interests 

Finding a way to relate to those around you not only makes you more empathetic it makes you more relatable. When you meet a new person, make it a practice to find at least three things you have in common with them.

Also, when people are sharing their experiences with you, work to engage your imagination and visualize what they are saying. Try injecting yourself into the situation and feeling what they felt. Doing this helps train your brain to move from a state of ego-centrism to being “other’s” focused.

 3. Respond to how they feel not what they say

When a wound is fresh and a person is angry and hurt they are also confused. This is why listening to understand is paramount in producing an empathetic response. You have to listen with your ears, your eyes and most importantly your heart. You have to hear the subtext and the things that go unsaid.

Parents, teachers, caregivers and anyone who works with children understand this concept. Kids–especially when they are very little–don’t possess the proper vocabulary to adequately express themselves. Adults have to assess the situation, interpret body language and facial expressions and in some way relate to what the child has experienced. The adult then responds to what the child is feeling in lieu of what they said.

4. Listen, Listen LISTEN

The key to comforting someone who is hurting is listening. You could have experienced the EXACT thing they are going through but you and your friend are unique individuals and see things differently. You may think you know how they feel because of how you felt but you can never be sure until they tell you.

You have to learn to fight the urge to jump in and say something. Even when the situation gets awkward and you feel something should be said. Fight the urge. Turn off your inner dialogue. Stop constructing your response. Listen to them.

They will tell you–through their words, tears and actions–exactly what it is that they need. And if you are unsure what to do or say, asking the simple question, “what can I do to help” or what do you need from me,” is better than assuming and doing the wrong thing.

Empathy requires more than merely putting yourself into someone else’s position. It is the ability to imagine yourself as him or her in the exact situation he or she is in. You cannot empathize with an abstract. The experience must become concrete.

When done correctly, empathy leads to compassion which is suffering with someone in lieu of merely pitying them. True empathy says, “I share your emotions.” Compassion, which is built from empathy, says “I share your emotions and care enough to help you heal.”


Published by Hill Writing & Editing

Denise Hill is currently a speech writer and senior editor at a government agency and also a professional freelance writer and editor. She has written and published over 200 online articles, ghostwritten a book and has an array of publishing and editing experience. She is a competent, creative and a deadline driven professional.

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