Wellness – A Way of Living

Turning Good Intentions into Action

Is it Sympathy or Empathy – and Why is that Important?

Empathy or Sympathy?

Empathy and Sympathy – why are these two approaches so misunderstood and ultimately misused?


Many people know what “sympathy” means much more than they know what “empathy” means. Some believe the two terms are synonymous.

There are many definitions and some even contradict themselves, however, the following definitions reflect my experience working with clients, training individuals, and interacting with people in my personal and professional life.

Sympathy: sympathy is related to feeling – emotion

Sympathy: When you provide sympathy you are engaging with that person’s pain, allowing your feelings to cloud your judgment which impairs your ability to support the person objectively.

Empathy: empathy is related to understanding – knowledge, experience

Empathy: When you have empathy you understand, or try to understand the other person’s pain but do not allow it to change how you communicate with that person, which allows you to support them objectively.

Sympathy emphasizes sharing distressing feelings whereas empathy does not emphasize any particular type of feeling. The listener using empathy shares and experiences whatever feelings the talker is expressing at the moment, regardless of whether the feelings are distressing like grief, or pleasant like love.

Sympathy may also involve agreeing with some aspects of the other person’s feelings, beliefs, and so on while empathy emphasizes understanding all of them with no interest in either agreeing or disagreeing.

The person using empathy tunes into the entire inner world of the other person while the person using sympathy typically tunes into only those aspects with which he agrees.

The listener using empathy usually responds more broadly to the talker as compared with the listener using sympathy.

Let’s look at the two approaches to see where our focus is in the conversation:

Sympathy Approach:

This approach has the intent of removing a person’s pain by making their problem our own and problem-solving for them. This approach is self-focused. It is the unconscious act of eliminating what is making us feel uncomfortable. This is a main contributor to ‘burnout.’

Empathy Approach:

This approach involves providing support from a place of understanding. This is other-person focused in its approach. It involves either personally understanding what the other person is going through, or asking the other person to help you understand the barriers and challenges they face. With this approach you facilitate the other person’s problem-solving.

The understanding you have of these two approaches and how this impacts your interaction with yourself and others, has a direct impact on your health – mental, emotional, and physical – and whether you are winning the battle or heading towards burnout, or not.

There’s a weight to carrying around past pain. Your fatigue has much to do with unprocessed emotions. The way to lighten the load is to talk, talk, and talk some more.

Not sure if you need a Wellness Coach? Contact me and arrange a free consultation call – and decide for yourself.

Michelle Potvin H.T. Coun.,

Wellness – A Way of Living

(Connect & Contact on Linked in – http://ca.linkedin.com/in/michellepotvin)

Wellness, a state of mind, body and spirit!


2010/11/29 Posted by | Behaviours, Mindfulness, Uncategorized, Wellness | , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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