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Empathy vs. sympathy: What’s the difference?

HPRC Fitness Arena: Family & Relationships, Mind Body
Trying to “solve” people’s emotional woes might not solve anything. Learn more about the differences between sympathy and empathy.

Ever have well-meaning people tell you to shake off feelings of sadness, frustration, or disappointment? It probably didn’t help. Similarly, when someone else is hurting, especially someone you love, you might try too hard to fix it. Empathy is feeling someone else’s emotions and letting that person know you fully understand. Sympathy is observing troubling events in someone’s life and letting that person know you’re concerned.

Sympathy is sometimes useful, such as when you want to maintain boundaries or focus on the task at hand, but it’s potentially less impactful than empathy. Make a difference with PACT: Purpose, Awareness, Compassion, and Treaty.

Purpose: Is your goal to let someone know you care (sympathy: e.g., “I wish this wasn’t happening to you; maybe we should talk about something less upsetting?”), or are you aiming to connect more deeply (empathy: e.g., “It feels like maybe part of you wants to talk about this more and part of you wants to set it aside right now.”)?

Awareness: Are you “observing” the person from afar (sympathy: e.g., “I hate that you’ve been having such a hard time lately.”), or trying to see the world through their eyes (empathy: e.g., “It feels like nothing is going right lately.”)?

Compassion: You can try to understand somebody based on similar personal experiences or you can use your imagination to understand more deeply, putting yourself in the other person’s “shoes.”

Treaty: With sympathy, you might feel pulled to agree with someone (e.g., “Yup, you got kicked around.”), but that might also prevent him or her from considering alternative viewpoints. With empathy, you can tune into how somebody feels without necessarily agreeing with that person (e.g., “You feel abused, and it’s hard not to feel like a victim right now.”).

Try PACT daily and decide what’s helpful: empathy or sympathy.

Kindness always wins

Supporting others with a thoughtful word or act has numerous benefits. Learn how to create “win-wins” in your relationships.

A little kindness goes a long way. Thoughtfully supporting others actually improves your chances for a long life too. There are lots of ways to show helpfulness to neighbors, friends, or relatives such as providing transportation, running errands, or helping with childcare. Everyone benefits from giving and receiving support, and it doesn’t always have to be a deed or gesture.

Providing emotional support to somebody is one of the best gifts you can give. Share your thoughts and feelings, respond to each other’s needs, and listen attentively. Offer advice when asked. Not sure what to say? Sometimes your presence alone can bring comfort to someone who needs it. In fact, a caring gesture often encourages its recipient to return the kindness—so it becomes a “win-win.” Be nice, help others, and develop long-lasting relationships.

Couples communication 101

It’s easy to get off track in communicating with your partner. To stay on course, be aware of these common pitfalls and actively work on communicating well.

Disagreements aren’t necessarily bad. Good relationships hinge on being able to communicate different viewpoints effectively, express yourself well, and really hear your partner. Here are some communication tips:

  • Start gently. Being direct is good, but you don’t need to dive in so hard and fast that you trigger defensiveness.
  • Own how you feel. You can be direct about how you feel without blaming anyone. And when you’re drawn into a fruitless argument over who’s to blame, it’s difficult to argue about how you feel. Consider saying, “I felt totally unimportant” rather than “You totally ignored me.”
  • Really listen. Summarize what you heard without defensiveness. Really tune into how your partner feels and communicate that in your summary, even if you don’t agree with why he or she feels that way.
  • Criticize behaviors, NOT character. It’s important to talk about specific actions that upset you. Rather than categorizing your partner as “the kind of person who…,” stay focused on a specific and recent behavior.
  • Always be respectful. Resist destructive temptations such as insults or name-calling; staying respectful is crucial for long-term communication success.
  • Hang in there. Problems often can’t be solved right away, but when talking together, persevere rather than escape: Don’t “zone out,” and don’t storm away.

Chances are that neither you nor your partner is a mean person. Nonetheless, because you’re human, your worst behaviors can come out during a difficult conversation. You might be aggressive, blame the other person, stop caring what the other person has to say, or you might work to avoid arguments altogether. But it doesn’t have to happen this way. Following the tips above will help you communicate constructively. For more on these kinds of strategies check out Basic Training for Couples Communication.



Assert yourself and be heard

Assertive communication is neither aggressive nor passive. It is both directive and cooperative.

Listening is half of communication. The other half is what you say and how you say it. The best way to express yourself is to be assertive. Assertive communication feels neither aggressive nor passive. It’s a balance between issuing a directive and being overly cooperative.

Communication between siblings can provide some good examples. Here’s the super directive approach: “You need to call me too. Don’t make me do all the work to keep up our relationship.” That may make sense, but the other person may not take it in because it triggers defensiveness. And here’s the overly cooperative approach: When your sibling says, “I hope you don’t mind that I never call,” you reply, “No, it’s okay, whatever you want is fine” (even if it isn’t). An assertive approach would be: “I’d really like to talk with you on the phone more, and I know you’re busy. What can we do to stay in better contact?”

The approach is basically a combination of “This is what I need” and “Can you join my team in figuring out a solution?” It’s straightforward and mutually empowering, opening the door for real communication. And for the other half of the communication equation, read last week’s article about how to be a good listener.

Communicate better by listening better

Amp up your communication skills. Improve the other half of the conversation with “active listening.”

If you find yourself at odds with those around you more than you’d like, think about bolstering your communication skills. Communication is a key skill in all relationships, and half of this skill is knowing how to listen. “Active listening” lets your loved one, friends, and associates know that you heard them and understand their perspective. Active listening happens when the listener—you—takes part in the conversation, not just listens. Here’s how you do it:

  • Repeat back to the other person the gist of what he or she just said.
  • Reflect the other person’s feelings; that is, recognize out loud that you understand how he or she feels
  • If you need clarification, ask for it in a gentle way.
  • Show interest and curiosity in what the other person is saying.

To see what this might look like, watch this video from the Kansas National Guard about active and constructive communication. FOCUS has a handout on “Effective Communication Skills” that further describes this skill.

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