Empathy vs. Sympathy, By Jim Colvin, MDiv.

There is a big distinction between empathy, as one of my admired speakers, Brene Brown points out.  I like what she says because I see it with clients and experience it in my own life time and again.  The difference is that empathy promotes connection while sympathy promotes disconnection.

For example, consider a time when you were hurting and perhaps someone said, “That sounds painful. I’ll just sit here and listen to you.”  Compare that to another kind of response, “Sorry to hear that…” and then the person goes on to relate all about their perceived similar experience without bothering to ask anything about how you are doing.

    Empathy involves four primary things:

1.    Taking the perspective of the other person; ask yourself if you were in their shoes what you might need or want to hear (or not hear).

2.    Staying out of judgment.  For instance when my son’s house burned down in the fall some people were concerned about his well being and asked how he was doing.  Others immediately wanted to know how the fire started.

3.    Recognize the emotions in the other person.  We are born with the capacity for empathy, to resonate with the feelings of those around us. If someone appears upset, honor that. Don’t change the subject. Be there. 

4.    Communicate your concern for them and their feelings.  It may take some spiritual stamina, but to be willing to be present rather than having to do something can by a healing act as it allows the person to feel all right about having their feelings and being in their situation. 

Empathy requires us to be open to our own pain and to be vulnerable about it. This can be a vehicle of deep connection.  Shutting ourselves off from our vulnerability shuts us off from others and disconnects. So, empathy requires a decision.  

Sometimes it takes courage to engage in this way, but the benefits of connecting at a deeper level are well worth the risk.