A Coaching Power Tool created by Hariprasad Menon
(Executive Coaching, INDIA)
They are two similar sounding concepts. The dictionary meanings of the two words are as follows :
- The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
- The imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.
- Harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another.
- Feelings or impulses of compassion.
- Feelings of favor, support, or loyalty: It's hard to tell where your sympathies lie.
Here is one distinction I read that is simple & helpful. It makes it easier for people to take the best decisions in social interactions with others, and it assists them to improve their people skills.
Empathy The ability to understand, perceive and feel another person’s feelings.
Sympathy The tendency to help others in order to prevent or alleviate their suffering.
Empathy is always good, Sympathy is contextually good.
Empathy is about the ability to put ourselves in another’s place – not just in another’s chair. It’s the ability to be the other person for some time. Experience the other’s context, feeling, and emotion. To be able to suspend one’s judgment of the other person and truly, genuinely, honestly seek to understand the other person. In relation, Sympathy or feeling the need to help others can be good or bad contextually. Sometimes it can mean honor and building bridges, sometimes it can mean lying, sacrificing your own needs.
You can have one, without the other.
This is the most important part. You can have sympathy with only a vague understanding of the other person’s feelings. Similarly you can also understand exactly how bad a person feels (Empathy) and still be capable of not helping him/her. Let’s say a friend of yours invites you to their birthday party. While you would like to go, in the very same day there is a conference in another town that you would like to go to even more than the birthday party.
Having empathy means that you understand this will make you friend feel hurt, maybe even a little angry, but you can still say no to their invitation and go to the conference, without feeling guilty or bad. You can have empathy and have options at the same time.
Why is this distinction essential?
Many believe that the ability to be empathic and the tendency to have sympathy are the same thing. Most people believe that if you have empathy, you have sympathy. They believe that if you understand how badly a person feels then you have to help them in some way, even if you know it’s a poor decision to do so. They feel Empathy & Sympathy are twin sisters traveling together.