Do you use sympathy or empathy?

What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy?

Did you know that if you showed empathy versus sympathy you could create a deeper connection and improve your communication?

I've been thinking a great deal lately about the difference between the two lately and the fact that I don’t know if many people understand how they differ.

When we show someone sympathy we are having feelings of pity or sorrow for their misfortune and we have this natural response of wanting to make it better for them.  In order to do that we begin to tell them our own story that relates to what they are going through in that moment, because after all we want them to feel better knowing that they aren’t the only ones who have experienced this!

One of the things I had to learn as a coach was to drop my need to have to solve my client’s problems or to make it better for them. My previous work experience had been in the insurance industry, in a customer service role. I had 20 + years of problem solving to learn to put aside when I was coaching.  Add to that I am a mom and problem solving was what my life was all about!!  Let me tell you that was a hard lesson to learn, and I still slip up at times.

The problem is that we aren’t really solving anything when we do this.  Have you ever noticed that when you are in that place of sadness and trying to figure something out that no matter what people say you keep going to others to talk about it again?  Why do we do that?

I believe it’s because we do not truly feel like we are being heard.

Carl Roger’s was quoted in the book Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg as saying the following:

“When…. Someone really hears you without passing judgement on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good!... When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on. It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard. “

What happens when we show empathy to someone instead of sympathy?  Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of another.  Empathy with others occurs only when we have successfully shed all preconceived ideas and judgement about someone.

I mentioned that I am a mom.  Often times when my son takes the time to come and speak to me about something going on in his life, he is 20 years old, I often put on my “mom” hat and want to help solve the problem.  He has told me once or twice, “Mom, I’m not looking for you to solve my problem. “ What he’s asking me for is empathy, the ability to simply hear him, be with him and understand, without telling him what to do or necessarily sharing my own stories.

The next time a friend, family member or your partner comes to you upset or sad about something in their life; try showing empathy rather than sympathy. Sometimes that means just being silent with them, being present, (i.e. turning off your need to solve the problem) and holding that space safely for them to work through what is happening for them.  Giving them the gift of greater connection may be the best thing you could ever do for your relationship.



It is nice to have someone just listen, and be empathetic. I think women are better at this then men--men seem wired to want to try to fix everything.

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