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Do you know the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Do you know the difference between empathy and sympathy? To avoid confusion, it’s important to have a clear definition of these two basic concepts.


How do you tell them apart?

Empathetic communication involves active and positive listening that is non-judgmental and does not attempt to influence what the other person is thinking. Needless to say, manipulation has no place in empathetic communication.

An empathetic communicator is able to recognize the emotion of the person they’re speaking with, name it, welcome it and allow it to develop to improve the person’s well-being. In other words, empathetic communicators have the ability to put themselves in the other person’s shoes and listen without losing their own identity or having to agree with the other person’s ideas. An empathetic communicator acts as a catalyst who helps the other person find a solution to their problems.

Sympathy implies a merging of emotions. Not only do you recognize the other person’s emotions, you feel them too. This merging does not help an individual progress toward a solution. Although the other person will certainly feel supported, sympathy could evolve into pity, which is unnecessary and even harmful.


The evolution of an empathetic conversation

Empathetic communication is based on emotions that evolve with the dialogue. As the communicator, you work in steps. You start by perceiving the emotions. You then identify them (joy, anger, disappointment). Once these initial steps have been completed, you start an investigation to understand the other person’s deep-seated motivations.

To do so, you ask open-ended questions and let the other person explain and discover their motivations. Obviously, this step must be without judgment, abuse of power or manipulation. Lastly, you can help the other person work on evolving their emotions. For example, a good communicator can help a person who’s angry work toward becoming calmer and even toward becoming creative in solving their problems.

Figure 1: Emotions during an empathetic conversation


"Sympathy provides solace, but empathy allows us to grow.”



If you have power or authority over the other person, whether real or perceived (e.g., as their parent, boss or professor), be very careful when attempting to communicate empathetically. Whether you like it or not, your position will influence your conversation. You just need to be aware of this and to avoid denying or ignoring the other person’s perspective.

About the author(s)

Dr. Nicole Audet has been a family doctor since 1981. She has a master’s degree in health sciences education. She’s passionate about popularizing medicine. Dr. Audet has written health guides for adults, collections of books to explain medicine to children (the Felix & Booboo series) and books on empathy.