What is empathy and why is it very different than sympathy?

We often think of the ability to show sympathy as a positive trait; however, according to Dr. Brené Brown, “Empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection.”

Empathy Versus Sympathy: What Do We Need?

Since viewing Dr. Brown’s short video on the subject several years ago, I make sure to show it to my students each fall. I believe empathy is a trait severely lacking in our world today. Politicians insult one another; reality TV characters scream at each other; mass shootings are broadcast live on Facebook; and racism and xenophobia are on the rise. Meanwhile, children witness and internalize it all. The world could use a lot more empathy.

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The Four Attributes Of Empathy

Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, points out four key attributes of empathy:

1. Perspective Taking

The ability to take the view of another person and understand that their perspective is their reality.

2. Staying out of Judgment

Humans are naturally judgmental, but when we judge others, we make assumptions without knowing a person’s backstory.

3. Recognizing Emotions in Other People

Rather than reacting to other people’s emotions by becoming defensive or negating them, identify, validate, and clarify their feelings.

4. Communicate

To show empathy, it’s important that we remove ourselves emotionally and become impartial observers, noting, “You seem sad.” instead of asking “Why are you so upset?” or “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Sympathy is “I feel bad for you.”

Empathy is “I feel you.”

Being Empathetic

Empathy requires that we make ourselves vulnerable to another person’s pain and that takes courage. To connect with someone’s suffering, we must pull that emotion from deep within ourselves, and feel it fully. It seems counterintuitive because most of us do not want to feel our own pain, let alone connect with it on purpose.

Difficult conversations are not easy or comfortable. It seems easier and more helpful to try to alleviate a person’s suffering by pointing out that their glass is half full. However, people who are in emotional pain are not looking for an answer; they are looking for connection.

Suggested Read: The Power Of Listening: Supporting A Loved One Through Grief

Dr. Brown explains that starting any sentence with, “At least…” is a faux pax. For example:

“I lost my job.”
Instead of: “At least you got severance pay.”
Try: “That sounds stressful. Would you like to talk about it?”

“My boyfriend broke up with me.”
Instead of: “At least you didn’t waste any more time with him.”
Try: “Is that upsetting or are you feeling relieved?”

“My grandmother passed.”
Instead of: “At least she lived a long life.”
Try: “That’s so sad. I’d love to hear more about her if you’d like to share.”


Connection Is The Answer

When a student comes to me in distress, I don’t necessarily have answers for them, but I will always thank them for sharing their pain with me. As much as I would like to, I know my words cannot relieve their suffering.

Dr. Brown wisely notes, “What makes something better is connection.” And, it is connection expressed through empathy that will make the world a safer and more loving place.

"What makes something better is connection." - Brené Brown

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Looking for other ways to comfort a friend during a difficult time? Read more thoughtful suggestions about ways you can support them.