Comparison of Sympathy with Empathy

Many people know what "sympathy" means much more than they know what "empathy" means. Some believe the two terms are synonyms. These statements are my opinions which stem from my, Lawrence J. Bookbinder, Ph.D.'s, experiences with educating people about empathic listening and more than 30 years of observing two-person conversations, including my own conversations.

My observations were not limited to my social conversations but included "professional conversations"--interviewing a person as part of a psychological evaluation and providing psychotherapy and counseling to individuals.

I use the term "empathic listening" to refer to a blend of empathy and listening skills.

To return to the comparison: I view sympathy and empathy as not being synonyms. To explain my view and to contribute to the understanding of empathy, I will present my understanding of the differences and similarities between sympathy and empathy. My presentation is limited to the situation of two-person conversations and consists of the following sections:


Death of a Father  oooooooo

A man is talking about his father's death, which had occurred a week earlier. As he talks about missing his father and his powerful love for him, the man's voice gradually becomes filled with anguish and then he bursts into tears in front of a friend who is listening to him.

If the friend uses sympathy, she might think, for example: He is remembering his father with pain. Poor Roger. If the friend decides to verbalize her thoughts, she might say to the grieving man words such as: "I feel your pain."

If the friend uses empathy, she might think, for example: He is remembering his father with pain and also the pleasure of his love for him. If the friend decides to verbalize her thoughts, she might say to the grieving man words such as: "I feel your pain and also your great love for your father."

This sharing of the painful feelings of another person is characteristic of both sympathy and empathy. However, the person using sympathy would pay more attention to the pain than to the love for the father whereas the person using empathy would pay equal attention to the pain and love.

If the friend added "I'm sorry for your loss," this statement would also be characteristic of sympathy, but not of empathy. The person using empathy would share the grieving man's emotional pain, but not necessarily feel sorry for or pity him. Of course, one can use both sympathy and empathy, for example: "I feel your pain and also your great love for your father. I'm sorry for your loss."

Before proceeding to the next anecdote, a comment on terminology. Other terms for "sharing of feelings" are "feeling into someone"1 and "experiencing with someone."

Belief in Income Tax Cuts  oooooooo

In addition to sharing a feeling, sympathy also involves the sharing of a belief. An example is a woman explaining to a friend why she believes in income tax cuts. She speaks for 15 minutes, giving two reasons in support of her belief and carefully presenting each one in great detail.

Her friend holds the same belief but does not understand her reasons for believing that the cuts will stimulate the economy.

If the friend responds with sympathy, he might say, for example:

  • "I'm in sympathy with your belief" or
  • "I agree that taxes should be cut" or
  • "We're on the same track here."

If the friend responds with empathy, he might, for example:

  • summarize the 15-minute explanation in one sentence: "You believe it will stimulate the economy and will give hope to lower-income people" and/or
  • comment on the meaning of the woman presenting a large amount of detail: "I see you've given a lot of thought to this subject" and/or
  • request more information: "I don't understand your belief that the cuts will stimulate the economy. Your answers to my questions might help me understand. Why do you ...?"

Although the friend does not understand why the woman thinks tax cuts would stimulate the economy, when he uses sympathy he is more interested in the fact that he agrees with her about the need for cuts. He is less interested in understanding her reasoning on why it would stimulate the economy. By contrast, empathy is not about agreeing or disagreeing but is about acknowledging her belief in tax cuts and trying to understand her reasons for advocating it.


Feelings, Beliefs, and Inner Psychological World  oooooooo

At this point you may be thinking: So far you have discussed sympathizing and empathizing with a person's feelings or beliefs. What about other aspects of a person such as values or goals? I will answer this question by introducing the concept of a person's inner psychological world, which I will divide into two parts--"the heart part" and "the head part."

The heart part consists of feelings.

The head part consists of beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, opinions, values, memories, wishes, goals, etc. I have grouped all of the head part components under the label of "beliefs" in order to simplify my comparison.

Both sympathy and empathy involve "tuning in" to ("entering") the other person's inner world. After tuning in, the person using empathy temporarily becomes that person in a limited way ("identifies with"), for example, the grieving and loving son; this does not usually happen for the person using sympathy.

Less-Recognized Differences  oooooooo

I believe that sympathy involves being less active when listening as compared with empathy. Tuning in to the talker's inner world often readily happens for the listener using sympathy because he focuses on aspects with which he agrees, for example, a belief in tax cuts. By contrast, the listener using empathy sometimes has to work at tuning in if he does not, for example, believe in tax cuts. In order to understand this aspect of the talker's inner world, he would need to listen carefully to the talker justifying the need for tax cuts.

I also believe that sympathizing and empathizing differ in the activity of judging or evaluating. Returning again to the example of tax cuts will help to explain. The person using sympathy believes in tax cuts which means that he has a positive evaluation of it. Another way of saying this is that agreement with a belief means having a positive evaluation of it. By contrast, the person using empathy is not interested in whether he has a positive or negative evaluation of tax cuts but in understanding the talker's positive evaluation of cuts. Being non-judgmental is central for the person using empathy.

Comparison of Sympathy with Empathy: Summary  oooooooo

Sympathy emphasizes sharing distressing feelings whereas empathy does not emphasize any particular type of feeling. The listener using empathy shares (experiences) whatever feelings the talker is expressing at the moment, regardless of whether the feelings are distressing (grief, for example) or pleasant (love, for example).

Sympathy may also involve agreeing with some aspects of the other person's feelings, beliefs, etc. whereas empathy emphasizes understanding all of them with no interest in either agreeing or disagreeing.

The person using empathy tunes into the entire inner world of the other person whereas the person using sympathy typically tunes into only those aspects with which he agrees.

The listener using empathy usually responds more comprehensively to the talker as compared with the listener using sympathy.

Summary of Summary  oooooooo

Sympathy focuses on sharing (experiencing) a person's bad news or feelings, feeling sorry for the person suffering the bad news/feelings, and whether the sympathizer agrees with any of the person's beliefs, opinions, or goals whereas empathy focuses on sharing (experiencing) a person's bad and good news or feelings and understanding the bad or good news/feelings rather than feeling sorry for the person's bad news/feelings or agreeing or disagreeing with the person's beliefs, opinions, or goals.


MORE INFO: Learning more about empathy and listening skills may help you learn more about the differences and similarities between sympathy and empathy. To assist with this learning, links to some of my websites on empathy and listening skills are presented below.

1. Goodman, Gerald & Esterly, Glenn. The Talk Book: The Intimate Science of Communicating in Close Relationships. (Rodale Press: Emmaus, Pennsylvania, 1988, page 41)

If you liked this site, e-mailing me your thanks will reward me for creating it and help sustain my motivation to keep it going for future visitors.

Some of My other Websites about Empathy and Listening Skills

Empathy, Listening, Skills, and Relationships is a six-page website which contains information about empathy and listening skills.

Empathy contains a description of a conversation with a United States Copyright Office representative during which I used empathy.

Listening Skills and Relationships is a discussion board about empathy and listening skills which includes messages from me and my responses to messages from others. To read or post messages, you do not have to register. Visit the board to read questions and answers, ask or answer questions, share experiences, etc.

Copyright © 2004, 2005, and 2006 by Lawrence J. Bookbinder, Ph.D. and last revised on September 12, 2006. I also have websites on prostate cancer and on the noncancerous enlarged prostate (BPH).