Empathy Versus Sympathy

Many people have confused sympathy and empathy as they are similar but different. Here, sympathy and empathy will be explained, and examples will be provided so that you are able to understand better what each emotion is and how it is used. Both words are linked to the relationship a person has to the feelings and experiences that another person is experiencing.


Sympathy is used to convey condolences, pity, or sadness for someone experiencing certain unfortunate situations. Sympathy is labeled as a state of sorrow and support for others in need. You know that you feel sorry for that person; however, you do not know what it is like to be in that person’s shoes.

Example: When one feels sorry for their friend that recently lost their pet; however, the sympathetic friend has never had a pet before. Being that the sympathetic friend has never had a pet before, it is hard to understand what the other person is feeling during this miserable time in their life.


Unlike sympathy, empathy is the most used term that describes the capacity to imagine oneself in another person’s situation. With this, you experience the emotions, ideas, and opinions of the other person. Being empathetic, you can feel the emotions of those around you rather than just feeling sorry that an unfortunate event took place.

Example: As you get older, it is much easier to have empathy for your parents. You being to realize and start to feel how you made them feel when you were growing up. You notice that your parents went through a lot to raise you the right way and while thinking about this, you begin to feel bad and imagine how they felt when you said something that you didn’t mean.

Both sympathy and empathy have a certain time and place to be used.

It is often more common for people to be sympathetic within the workplace to ensure there are no unwanted emotions displayed in a professional environment. 

You must practice sympathy with others within the workplace as there are many things that people could be experiencing. With these experiences, work performance can begin to slip, once talkative people are more isolated, and tensions can flare in the blink of an eye. 

When you can effectively communicate with the person and sympathize with that person, it can help them work through their issues. We must understand that we are all human, and we all have situations that can arise without warning.

Being able to help people within the workplace, without overstepping professional boundaries, is crucial to the work environment’s effectiveness.

As far as empathy, it is best to provide your loved ones, friends, and others around you with empathy when appropriate. 

Providing those with empathy that need it will make them feel like someone cares for their wellbeing and will allow them to confide in you with their issues. You will be able to hear them out, listen to their situation, and provide them with suggestions as to what they should do. It is important to understand that not everyone will take your advice and may do the exact opposite of what you recommend. Do not get upset about their choice, after all, in the end, it is their call as to what they do next in their life. All you can do is provide them with sound advice and being there for them. 

Be sure that you know when to let the person continue doing their own thing. If you find that it is more stressful for you to help someone unwilling to receive help, it may be a good time for you to take a step back.

The 3 Types Of Empathy

Empathy is defined as the ability to sense another person’s emotions while being able to imagine what that person must be thinking or feeling. Empathy is a skill that can improve your relationships and your own wellbeing. 

There are three different types of empathy and each one has its own method of thinking and feeling for another person. Cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy are similar however they are different from each other. Here are each of the types of empathy broken down further.

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy is defined as knowing how another person feels and what they may be thinking. This is also described as perspective-taking. Cognitive empathy is concerned with intellect, thought, and understanding. This type of empathy helps to motivate people, understand diverse viewpoints, and is perfect for virtual meetings.

Cognitive empathy does have its downfalls though. It can lead to a lack of, or ability to ignore, deep emotion. Cognitive empathy does not allow you to put yourself in the shoes of the other person. Cognitive empathy is more about being able to communicate with others in a specific manner and not sharing the emotions that are associated with a certain situation. 

Cognitive empathy is about thought as much as it is about emotion. It is knowing, comprehending, and understanding another person on an intellectual level. For example, understanding sadness as an emotion is not the same as feeling the emotion of sadness. 

Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy is defined as physically feeling along with another person as if their feelings were transmissible. Through emotional empathy, you are able to feel the emotions that others are feeling whether is it fear, stress, happiness, or sadness And this allows to understand what the other person is going through.

This benefits close relationships that you have with someone, as well as certain jobs such as coaching, mentoring, and marketing. There are some negatives to emotional empathy however, it can be overwhelming or even inappropriate in some situations. As humans it is natural that you feel the hurt your loved ones feel when they are crying. 

You are relating to their emotions and you are emotionally on the same page with them which will allow you to understand where it is, they are coming from and you can better communicate those feeling with them. You can be physically and emotionally there for those that you love through emotional empathy.

Compassionate Empathy

Compassionate empathy is defined as being moved to help someone after understanding and feeling what another person is feeling. With compassionate empathy, you are able to consider the entire person, feelings, emotions, and all. 

However, like all the other types of empathy, there are downfalls such as being taken advantage of by certain people that use the emotions and empathy of others to get what they want. It is important that you not only look out for the other person and help them in any way that you can, but you must also protect yourself from being taken advantage of by others. If you do not look out for yourself, you may be taken advantage of and after you have been hurt yourself, your compassionate side will cease to exist to protect yourself. Having the ability to compassionately empathize with others is a special gift and is appreciated by most. It is a healthy reaction to those that you love and care about. 

Even having compassionate empathy towards those that are less fortunate is a great gift. There are lots of people that put others before themselves and they are changing the world by doing so. 

Living By The Golden Rule Of Empathy

Looking at the uncomplicated scenarios of empathy playing a role.

So, what is the Golden Rule of empathy? It is said that Jesus of Nazareth (Holy Bible, Matthew 7:12) first quoted and wrote the empathy laws. This can also be considered an ethic of reciprocity according to different religions. 

The adage might appear as a positive or negative injunction governing conduct in a scenario:

  • Treat others as you would like others to treat you
  • Do NOT treat others in ways that you would NOT like to be treated
  • What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself

Psychologically, all the “laws” require empathy. First, you must identify your own behaviors and thoughts, before applying judgement. Otherwise, your own mind does not have the ability to accept new behaviors and ideas. Let us look at some scenarios where these laws apply in everyday life.

  • A Young Man Gets Bullied on The City Bus

A disabled young man gets teased and pushed into a seat by another rider. How does one demonstrate empathy? First, the brain must assess the danger to yourself and others around you. You then can remember to clearly work through your emotions. If the brain becomes too sympathetic or fearful in the immediate situation, the feeling of the fight-or-flight response can trigger. 

Dr. Robert Glatter told LiveScience.com, “…. If too much adrenaline floods into the heart, it can lead to the failure of that organ and death.” By being empathetic from the beginning of the initial situation, you acknowledge the situation by knowing how bullying feels. The rest of the interaction can be focused on and responded to if needed. 

  • Overwhelmed and Exhausted Co-Worker

A co-worker in a different department has been tasked with sorting through old paper files to get them ready for disposal. Word is, she will need to come in over the weekend to finish. While you do not do the same kind of work, your empathetic to her plight. 

On Saturday, you drop by with some sandwiches and a cold drink. By offering to help, the co-worker feels more like a team which creates longer relationships. Poet John McGrath quoted, “A champion team will always build a team of champions.” 

  • Bad complaint from customer

You run a small bakery store. One early morning, a woman comes in and is irate that your employee had used blue lettering instead of red which caused the party to be ruined. Using empathy immediately allows you to focus on refunding and appeasing the customer. When you look at your employee, you realize she is extremely upset also. She is trying not to cry. Your empathetic response is, “I’m so sorry that happened. I understand, I’ve had it happen a few times to me too.” This again shows your employee your relatable and level-headed, which makes you a better leader.

  • Friend dealing with a break-up

A close friend is going through a difficult break-up. Though your sympathetic side wants to be upset, this is an opportunity to show empathy. Your empathetic side can put aside your personal feelings towards her partner. 

Part of being empathetic is checking your own judgement till later, allowing you to focus on her feelings instead. You give her a hug and listen attentively while she talks. Often, a person simply just needs a shoulder to cry on. 

To summarize…

Empathy is a learned skill as is often tested to its limits. Practicing every day, keeps you and the ones around you in a calmer space. By using the Golden Rules of empathy, you show others that it is important to respect each other even when we cannot agree.