Empathy and sympathy are both ways we respond to the suffering of people around us. But there’s a crucial difference: Sympathy is acknowledging someone else’s pain, but empathy is choosing to feel the pain with them. Sympathy says, “I care about you,” while empathy says, “I’m hurting with you.”
Sympathy is being aware of and sensitive to the needs and suffering of others. It’s recognizing—or even honoring—the reality of a tough situation. But although you’re expressing sadness, you still have an emotional boundary around yourself to keep from feeling what the sufferer is feeling.
Empathy is understanding and vicariously experiencing what others are going through. It’s sitting in their pain. It takes creativity to empathize, because you’ve got to imagine yourself in the situation of the other person and feel the heaviness of their burden.
Which is Better?
Both sympathy and empathy are important relational and emotional skills and are helpful in different contexts. However, empathy is a must-have for relationships because empathy fuels connection. It’s not enough for the people we care about to acknowledge our experiences. It’s not enough that people know about us. People aren’t living Wikipedia pages. We long to share our experiences.
Empathy is necessary, but it’s exhausting. It’s commitment. It’s deep connection. As citizens of a wired world, we are living under an onslaught of horrific news, sad stories and chaotic events that are out of our control. We can’t practice empathy for every single person on the planet—we would eventually burn out.
Sympathy can be helpful. It allows us to learn about the oppression, pain and tragedy running rampant in our world and then make decisions about how we can intentionally influence our community. Sympathy makes sure our eyes are open and aware, and it informs our actions.
But when it comes to the people we are given to love and care for—our family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, church community—empathy is essential.
Empathy, like other relationship skills, is a choice. It’s choosing to sit next to hurting people, and keeping your mouth shut. You can only learn empathy by listening to other people’s stories and witnessing their pain. But it is also something you can learn and practice. Here are a few tools to add to your belt:
Practicing empathy starts with just showing up. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of showing up to sit with people in the darkest moments of their lives. I sat with parents who had just discovered their dead child in the next room. I sat with wives whose husbands would never walk through the door again. I met with parents of young people who had taken their lives.
There’s nothing to say in those moments. But presence is everything. When people are gasping for air, they need to feel they’re not alone. Show up. Hug tight. Sit on the couch. Go to the funeral. Buy the plane ticket. When people are grieving, they don’t need your advice or your explanations. They need your presence.
Be a good listener
Empathetic people are good listeners. They look people in the eye and nod. They ask follow-up questions. And they’re not listening for their turn to tell a 2.0 version of the story that this person is telling.
When you’re in a conversation with someone you care about, be intentional with your focus. Demonstrate physically and verbally that the person you’re with is the most important thing in your world at that moment.
Mirroring is the act of reflecting someone to themselves. It’s a tremendous way to help people feel seen and validated. If your partner comes home and shares a story about their terrible boss, you could say something like, “That’s awful. It sounds like you’re feeling tired and frustrated. I can understand why you’d be discouraged.”
Connect with people by using phrases like “Tell me how that feels” or “Tell me more about that.” Both statements are invitations for the person you’re with to connect on a deeper level.
It’s not your job to fix everything
Another way to practice empathy is to resist the urge to jump into problem-solving mode. Most of us think way too highly of ourselves, and are way too quick to offer our opinions. People rarely need our rants about what they should have done, or what you would have done.
Most people—most of the time—just need to be heard. When we tell people how they should fix their problems, they’ll only feel incompetent or out of control.
Don’t make comparisons
The experience of tragedy is confusing and disorienting. One of the things we often do when we’re hurting is try to make sense of our pain by comparing our situation with someone who is better or worse off than we are. This is called comparative grief. It’s pointless and damaging.
When someone is suffering, don’t point out the silver lining. Don’t remind them things could be worse. They’ll make sense of it over time, but that comes later in the grieving process. This is a big one: Do not tell them about a time when you (or your cousin’s roommate) had a way bigger tragedy. Simply acknowledge their pain.
Yes, you read that right. Getting lost in a good novel could make you better at relationships. Stories allow us to practice empathy because they transport you emotionally into someone else’s experience. Fiction gives us a window into what the characters are thinking and feeling, and how they’re processing the world. A good book can be a reality simulator for real life.
Remember, empathy is a lifelong skill. And we are all in process.