Sympathy and Empathy: What’s the Difference?

two friends drinking coffee. One is showing empathy by listening.

Sympathy and empathy are synonyms that are often used interchangeably. But there’s an important difference between the two qualities and knowing it can make you more emotionally intelligent.

Which quality would you rather be known for: empathy or sympathy?

At first glance, you might think these two qualities are basically the same thing. The truth, though, is there is a subtle yet powerful difference between sympathy and empathy. Knowing that difference can help you better relate to those you work and live with, allowing you to deepen and strengthen those relationships.

What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy?

Sympathy is a feeling of pity or sadness for someone’s trouble, grief, or misfortune. In contrast, empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings and emotions.

Both qualities have their place, but showing empathy takes more time and requires more effort than showing sympathy. Let’s break this down further.

Sympathy is a great quality and can be extremely useful, but it’s limited. For example, imagine a colleague goes through a difficult personal situation, such as a divorce or the loss of a family member. You naturally feel sympathy. You may even write a card or attempt to express our feelings somehow (sometimes awkwardly). For the most part, though, you move on with your life.

When you show empathy, however, you do more. First, you think about how it felt when we went through similar circumstances (or how you would feel, if you haven’t had this experience). You strive to remember how this affected your work and our relationships. Even further, you try to imagine specifically how your colleague feels in this situation, recognizing that every individual will deal with things in his or her own way.

Empathy enables you to be more understanding and can help to strengthen your relationships. This can make you a better manager, teammate, spouse, parent, family member, or friend.

But as you can see, the challenge is showing empathy is hard.

Despite the fact that all of us yearn for others to try fitting into our shoes, we’re often not ready to do the same for them. We see this every day in the form of broken marriages, strained parent-child relationships, and deteriorating communication in the workplace. (To understand more about the “why” behind this, you can read about what’s called “the perspective gap.”)

So, how do you cultivate empathy?

In EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, I share the following suggestions.

Become a good listener

When a person tells you about a personal struggle, listen carefully. Resist the urge to judge the person or situation, to interrupt and share your personal experience, or to propose a solution. Instead, focus on understanding the how and why: how the person feels, and why they feel that way.

Remember that individual experiences vary greatly, as do the emotions that accompany those experiences.

Sharing emotions isn’t easy, so help the person feel secure by thanking them for sharing those feelings. Depending on the person (and the situation), you may encourage them to express themselves further, using questions such as “How long have you felt this way?” or “Have you ever experienced this type of situation before?” Be careful not to force it, lest the other person feel interrogated.

Most of all, reassure them—through words and actions—that you’re not here to judge. You’re here to listen.

Relate to feelings, not situations

Next, it’s important to take time to reflect. Once you have a better understanding of how the person feels, you must find a way to relate.

You may not be able to relate to another person’s situation. For example, maybe they are having a hard time with their kids, and you don’t have children. Or, maybe they’re struggling with something at work that you’ve never experienced, or don’t see as such a huge deal.

But while you can’t relate to the other person’s situation, you can relate to their feelings. You’ve experienced disappointment, frustration, or the feeling of being overwhelmed.

So, ask yourself: When have I felt similar to what this person has described?

This will help you build a bridge with the other person, instead of a wall.

Offer to help…Maybe

Once you’ve allowed the person to express themselves, they will likely feel at least somewhat better.

Many times, that’s all that’s needed. (Or all you can do for now.) But if you’re so moved, you could go a step further and offer to help.

Maybe you take the initiative to do something that you think the other person will appreciate. Or, maybe you have an experience to share or a suggestion to make. If so, avoid making the other person feel inadequate, or that you have all the answers. Frame it as something that’s helped you in the past, or as an option that they can adapt to their circumstances.

Remember that what worked for you, or even others, may not work for this person. But don’t let that hold you back from helping. Simply do what you can.

There’s a time and place for sympathy. But you’ll go a lot further with empathy. In fact, cultivating empathy will do wonders for your relationships.


Because in most cases, empathy begets empathy. When you work hard to walk in another person’s shoes, they’ll be moved to do the same for you.

And that gets the best out of everyone.


You might also like:

What Is Empathy? The 3 Types of Empathy and How They Differ

Can Empathy Be Bad? Make Your Empathy Helpful, Not Harmful

The Rule of the Chess Player: Learn How to Show Empathy

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