In terms of emotions and how feelings are expressed, sympathy and empathy are often misconstrued as the same thing. Truthfully they are rather similar, but there is a very big difference between the two that many refuse to see. This often allows confusion to occur when speaking of one or the other. Sympathy is the act of feeling sorry for another person, while empathy is actually experiencing the same emotions that person is going through.
Another way to look at both sympathy and empathy is the distance method. How much emotional distance is there between one person and another? Those that are sympathetic to others can be as close or as far as they choose to be in their emotional state, but there is always a certain detachment from the situation at hand. Empathizers on the other hand know almost exactly how another is feeling because the same thing, or something very similar, has happened to them at some point in life.
Quite often people will seek to find the silver lining in any problem simply because it can
be extremely difficult to empathize. As Dr. Brene Brown (2013) states this is quite often a
conscious choice and is not the easiest thing to do. Empathy is not about giving a blanket answer
or making comparisons that will allow the hurt to subside, it is about taking a piece of one’s own
life experience that is similar to that of another’s and reliving it or retelling it so as to make that
person understand that they are not alone. Sympathizers seek the silver lining in order to make
the problem seem less than it is. There is no real fault in this other than the fact that it does not
bring about the desired resolution to the issue at hand.
Sympathy is more an automatic response that allows people to convey their condolences or otherwise allow another person to realize that they did in fact hear about their issue. Empathy is the conscious choice of another person to take that individual’s trouble to heart and seek to find a way to help them move through this rough time in their life by offering any assistance they can, be it emotional or otherwise. While both are efforts to at least assuage the hurt that an individual might be feeling, sympathy is far more aloof while empathy is close and personal. The silver lining theory can be useful in seeking to maintain one’s daily routine, but eventually must be abandoned for true healing to occur.
One very important area in which empathy is most important is leadership. Whether one is a supervisor, a manager, an owner, or even a community leader of some sort, empathy is highly important. By being able to empathize with subordinates it becomes possible to understand their needs, their desires, and what makes them tick as a person. Good leaders will listen to their people and seek to connect with them on a level that will create a bond that will benefit both leader and subordinate.
Few people actually want a leader that cannot relate to them in some way. It makes for a
distant and impersonal environment that does not foster growth, trust, or even basic understanding. By being able to feel what another person is going through or has gone through a
leader can make more informed decisions on how to proceed in a manner that will take into account the sensibilities of their people. Those leaders that do not get to know their people on this level are often condemned as poor and ineffective, and not at all in touch with those they depend upon. Leaders that sympathize with their people are far less capable of keeping their position than those that offer their empathy and seek to better the lives of their people.
The RSA. “Brene Brown on Empathy.” Youtube, 10 March 2013,