The Difference Between Empathy And Sympathy

by TeachThought Staff

What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy? There is one, and it’s pretty important.

In brief, empathy is feeling with or alongside someone, while sympathy is feeling sorry for, which Brene Brown,research  professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, explores in the video above. Brown reduces the difference between empathy and sympathy as the difference between feeling with and feeling for, calling empathy a ‘sacred space’ and a ‘choice.’

Formal Dictionary Definitions

Oxford Dictionary defines sympathy as, ‘Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.’ 

Example of sympathy: ‘They had great sympathy for the flood victims’

See also The Opportunities For Empathy In The Classroom

But the second definition Oxford offers sounds strangely like what we’ve called empathy, explaining sympathy as, ‘Understanding between people; common feeling.’

Example of sympathy: ‘The special sympathy between the two boys was obvious to all’

So what about empathy? According to Oxford Dictionary, the difference between empathy and sympathy is that the latter involves a degree of judgment or evaluation–that the sympathizer assumes they know what another person might feel, and then extends that emotional experience to pity, for example.

‘Empathy means ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ (as in both authors have the skill to make you feel empathy with their heroines), whereas sympathy means ‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune’ (as in they had great sympathy for the flood victims)

While the difference feels narrow, it is crucial: empathy focuses on a mutual and shared (albeit potentially asynchronous) emotional experience, whereas sympathy moves more swiftly from feeling with to feeling for.

Four Qualities Of Empathy 

1. Perspective taking
2. Staying out of judgment
3. Recognizing emotion in other people, and then communicating that
4. Feeling with

Empathy In The Classroom

In The Role Of Empathy In Learning, Terry Heick described the role of empathy in learning as having, “to do with the flow of both information and creativity.”

“Empathy is both a cause and an effect–the result and ongoing process of dialogic interaction with the world around us. It requires us to understand ourselves by understanding the needs and condition of those around us. It also encourages us to take collective measurements rather than those singular, forcing us into an intellectual interdependence that catalyzes other subtle but powerful tools of learning. Rarely can a response make something better; what makes something better is connection.”

The Difference Between Empathy And Sympathy