Empathy Is Not Sympathy

Empathy Is Not Sympathy

Last update: 20 February, 2016

We have all heard about empathy, and in many cases, it has probably been explained to us as “the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.”

However, this often does not work very well in practice. If it really is true that we sometimes put ourselves in others’ shoes, most of the time we only do it because we agree with the person standing before us; that is to say, we sympathize with them.


Therefore, we could say that sympathy means agreeing with and sharing the other person’s values; we sympathize with our friends and people with whom we share something in life, and that is why it will be easy for us to “put ourselves in their shoes.”

If this is true, though, it will not be so easy for us to “put ourselves in the shoes” of people with whom we have nothing in common. Precisely this is the weak point in that brief definition of empathy.

So what is empathy?

Empathy is a communicative attitude that allows us to take on all kinds of interpersonal interactions, independently of who it is standing before us, whether or not we agree with them, whether or not we sympathize with them.

So we can define Empathy as the ability to express respect for where the other person is coming from, whether we agree with them or not.

Empathy is not sympathy

Empathy supposes respect for the other person, and in many cases, our personal stance does not matter, as it may be the complete opposite of the other person’s. If the opposite is true, if we agree with them, we will be sympathizing with them.

How do we use Empathy?

We empathize with people who are different from us when we respect them in their position. For this, we express our empathy towards the other person, showing comprehension and understanding for their position, for we observe them from where they are coming from and we do not judge them for this. Some examples to express empathy could be: “I understand that what you are telling me is important for you” or  “I understand that you are angry about this because it seems unfair to you”

When do we express our personal opinion?

To show empathy, it is not necessary to express our opinion on the topic, as empathy means listening, observing, and respecting the position of the other person.

Old Friends, Side by Side

Of course, there will be many other occasions to express our opinion, starting with respect and empathy, through assertive or adequate communication.

Other confusions…

Sometimes in our daily lives, we believe ourselves to be empathetic, when in reality we are trying to look good in other people’s eyes, “to please” the other person, to obtain their approval; this does not mean we are empathizing, for what we want is to sympathize to obtain something in exchange, their appreciation. And that is not empathy.

On other occasions, we simply agree with the other person and show that we are sympathetic towards that person.

What does Respect mean?

Respect means knowledge and empathy, for we need to know and observe the other person in order to show respect for the position they are in.

Respecting is assuming that we all have the right to decide how we want to live, think, act, feel, and we do not judge them for that. On the contrary, we respect them and the decisions that they make in life.

When we respect, we understand where the other person is coming from, according to their own set of values; that is to say, we show empathy towards their position, without needing to “put ourselves in their shoes,” as our set of values can be very different; we understand where they are coming from, we respect them, and we express Empathy.

We may not share their set of values, but we show empathy with the other person when we respect their position without wanting to change it.

Sympathizing is sharing values, interests…Empathizing is expressing respect for the differences, without judging.

When two or more people live together, respecting is allowing ourselves to do things in the way that each of us decides and showing empathy is showing our respect, without this meaning the imposition of changes upon the other person that could change their values.

As such, empathy is a fabulous tool for interpersonal relationships, especially professional relationships and those that create differences between us and the other person.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.