How empathy is different from Sympathy?

How empathy is different from Sympathy?

Empathy is a very important skill discussed in different realms of psychology. However people are often perplexed between what is empathy and what is sympathy. When sympathy is expressed by almost every one of us, empathy is a skill that only few of us hold. This article is an attempt to describe about empathy and how it is different from sympathy.

Suppose if someone approaches you and share their concerns and worries. They feel emotional about any misfortune or recent loss they had. Listening to their experiences, you feel pity for them and express your feelings by showing some affection or telling them that you feel sorry for what they went through. You wish them good luck and offer them help or support in future.

The above mentioned incidence is an example of sympathy. It mainly involves feeling sorry for others and wishing them a happy future. Sympathy is not a bad or fake expression. The person who shows sympathy will be genuine and his or her care for the other person will be honest and affectionate. However it doesn’t equate with empathy. Empathy is more about feeling the same emotions that the other person went through. If you are empathetic, you will be able to place yourself in the same position that the other person was in, think from their perspectives, and feel the same emotions. Empathy involves recognition and acceptance of someone’s pain and understanding it from their viewpoint. It is the ability to understand others’ feelings, difficulties, and challenges better (Marques, 2010). Paul Ekman conceptualized empathy into three types; cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand what the other person might have thought or experienced in the situation. Emotional empathy is the ability to feel the same emotions they might have experienced, and  compassionate empathy involves not just feeling the same emotions, but also making an attempt to help the person to resolve their conflicts.

Empathy is a crucial skill that is useful in diverse settings including workplace and in personal relationships. The Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace suggested that managers with empathetic skills can lead to enhanced relationships in the workplace and increased leadership effectiveness. Those managers with high empathy tend to respect others, identify their concerns about work, show interest in others’ needs and goals, support employees even with their personal issues, and will be compassionate to them. The workplace empathy study conducted by businessolver found that 78% of employees are willing to work for longer hours if their employer is empathetic. Similarly, 82% of employees may leave their job if their organization is not empathetic towards them. The study identified that the empathetic attitude of employers affect the general well-being among employees. Financial assistance and support for mental health of employees are considered as signs of empathy in organizations. It was then identified that an organizational culture that embraces empathy decreases the likelihood of disengagement and loneliness among employees. Empathy is also one among the skills that should be possessed by effective business leaders (Rahman and Castelli, 2013). In general, empathy among managers is found to be related to job satisfaction among employees as well as enhanced job performance among the managers themselves. Furthermore, empathy also improves communication skills among individuals. Valente (2016) identified that major internal themes associated with enhanced empathic understanding as understanding emotional sharing, positive relationships, personal genuineness, and mutual regard. People with empathy will be able to adapt to changing circumstances and better manage conflicts (Kilpatrick, 2002). Ickes and Hodges (2013) identified that empathic accuracy is necessary in close relationships to enhance social connections. Empathy thus leads to overall relationship satisfaction (Selke, 2019).

Though empathy is a necessary skill that anybody possesses as a social being, it can become harmful beyond an extent. ThoughtCo. Adapted by Newsela (2017) mentions that empathy can sometimes lead to anger, unhealthy relationships, financial burdens, fatigue, guilt, and even depression in worst cases. Cameron et al. (2019) explored the possibilities of regarding empathy as a hard work and found that people sometimes avoid being empathetic because of the cognitive costs associated with it such as uncertainty about the experience of others and risk of committing errors (Dunn et al., 2017). Research has also identified that empathetic attitude sometimes lead to increased sensitivity among individuals (Konrath and Grynberg, 2016). People with high service orientation and helping mindset may feel guilty if they feel unable to help others in certain circumstances.

In today’s unprecedented context emerged due to COVID pandemic, it is inevitable for people to help each other by providing social support to be resilient and to bounce back from the hardships and traumatic events experienced. Empathy will be a vital skill that can reinforce people in such situations. With empathy and compassion, people can enhance relationships and overall life satisfaction.

About the Author

Parvathy Viswanath
PhD Scholar (Psychology).

I'm Parvathy Viswanath, PhD scholar in Psychology from Christ (Deemed to be University), Bangalore, Karnataka, India. I hail from Thrissur, Kerala.

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