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Empathy & Sympathy: What's the difference?

ScotterMonkeyFeb 24, 2019, 7:16:45 PM

[Excerpt from my upcoming book, Practical Empathy]

Goal: To simplify, codify, and distinguish how we conceive of sympathy and empathy.

In order to keep it simple and reduce confusion, I'm not going to talk here about the many ways other people define empathy and sympathy. And there are many! I'm going to focus on my changing understanding of these concepts and where I'm at now with what's most important to me: ways of distinguishing between sympathy and empathy so that we can learn, communicate, and practice their use most clearly and effectively.

My intentional exploration of doing empathy began in 2005 when I discovered the book Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life (NVC) by Marshall Rosenberg.

Back then, the interpretation I had from/of the book was that sympathy was to be discouraged, while empathy was the primary basis of NVC. I saw NVC empathy as a combination of what psychologists call affective empathy and cognitive empathy. With the benefit of hindsight, I see that interpretation as useful in my development of getting to where I am now with empathy.


Because it inspired an inner "no compromise" approach to empathy where I pushed myself to let go of my perspective; a practice I'm glad I went through.

Quick side track to define these two terms

- Affective empathy: Feeling for or with another person.

- Cognitive empathy: Understanding their perspective, mental state, or even feelings but not necessarily feeling with or for them.

So, the NVC style empathy that I have been practicing has been a combination of the above, usually a thing that begins with cognitive empathy and sometimes - depending on context, intent, and mood - turns into affective empathy.

How does that work?

In this example, Bob is going to begin with cognitive empathy and move into a more affective-type empathy. His end goal is to understand Susie's world, not to feel what she feels. That said, I'm going to demonstrate here how cognitive empathy can inadvertently lead to affective empathy.

Susie: "Today it really sucked at work."

Bob (cognitive empathy - not feeling her frustration yet but instead trying to place himself in the scene so he can at least understand): "Would you like to share about that?"

Susie: "Sure. Jim (the CEO) lambasted me in our morning meeting about not working over the weekend on the project."

Bob (here Bob is still doing cognitive empathy. He's more imagining what Susie was feeling, rather than _feeling_ it, though at this point a person could very easy be imagining it and feeling it): "Oh. When Jim did that in front of your peers, were you embarrassed and angry?"

Susie: "Yes! It was like he was questioning my commitment, integrity, and capability! I got pretty mad and had to exert a huge amount of self control to not start crying right there in front of everyone!"

Bob (some part of what she said really clicks for Bob here and he starts feeling quite a bit for Susie in that situation): "I know how much you value integrity and competency, so I can imagine how much that hurt!" (Bob's eyes are now wet and he feels a lump in his throat).

Why/when would you want to keep our empathy cognitive rather than allow your empathy to be or become affective?

- If we are empathizing with a person who's perspective we judge to be toxic to our well-being.

- If the environment or person would not be well served by bringing more than a minimal amount of emotion into the conversation. Think office environment or business negotiation.

- If it is easier for us to think/imagine than to feel.

OK so why/when would you want to allow your empathy to become affective?

- First and foremost, you want to.

- The situation and person you are talking with wants this because they will feel more trust, understanding, support, etc.

- It can have many positive affects on you, the empathizer, including "working your empathy muscles," increasing your courage, and the positive feelings that can come from liberating your emotions.

And all along, I demonized sympathy and enjoyed shocking students with my slight misinterpretation of what the NVC view of sympathy was. I'd say something like, "Sure, sympathy can be annoying, but hey it's better than a punch in the face." Yay, I'd usually get a chuckle or three.

In the past, I'd often describe it like this:

Let's say you share your story with me about a rafting trip you went on. My sympathetic response might be: "Ah that reminds me of the rafting trip I did back in ..." 

See how I made your story about me? That's not empathy. Here's empathy: "Oooh during that part where you were on that boat in the rapids, were you terrified?"

[Skip ahead a few years]

Some of the positive things I've realized about sympathy

- It is a way of connecting that can have an overall positive affect.

- You can be sympathetic without making their story about you.

- It can be helpful to reveal a little bit about yourself - be vulnerable - before asking them an empathetic question, which is asking them to be vulnerable.

- To briefly share with the person that you have been through something similar can create understanding, shared reality, and trust.

In conclusion

For now until I change my mind, ha, here is how I'll be defining these concepts:

Sympathy (affective empathy): Feeling for or with another person.

Empathy (cognitive empathy): Understanding their perspective, mental state, or even feelings but not necessarily feeling with or for them.

Game for practicing empathy

[Shameless plug]

I've created a card game called Play to Evolve that we have been playing for ~four years now in my free "Emotional Intelligence Play Group" every week.

[screenshots from the Android app]

Recently, I built a mobile app version for Android. No iPhone version yet, so I built a webapp version for that, which is free. You can find all versions at https://ClearSay.net.

The mobile versions all have two built-in games and an easy empathy phrase builder.

There's also an adult version that is fun for parties.