Empathy vs. Sympathy and Other Forms of Response

The most important ingre­dient of empa­thy is mind­ful pre­sence: I am here with you in order to lis­ten to what you want to share from your world, from your truth. I lis­ten with open curio­si­ty and full accep­t­ance of the uni­ver­sal human expe­ri­ence that may flow through the words you share.
When I lose con­nec­tion to your words, I will ask for cla­ri­fi­ca­ti­on and I am wil­ling to give back the mea­ning of what I hear as faith­ful­ly as I am able to, if you wish to hear back from me.

Carl Rogers dis­co­ve­r­ed the power of this non-judg­men­tal human pre­sence, in terms of recent Western advan­ces in psy­cho­lo­gy. On a dif­fe­rent level of human histo­ry this form of lis­tening is as old as huma­ni­ty its­elf and has been known for thousands of years. It is tru­ly empowe­ring for peop­le to open up their inner world when ano­t­her per­son is offe­ring this com­pas­sio­na­te, non-judg­men­tal space; it empowers a sharing per­son to go deeper into the fee­lings and the needs that are ali­ve in her. It is as if the pre­sence of ano­t­her human being hel­ps us to embrace our own pain in a healing kind of man­ner, resul­ting in a sen­se of deep con­nec­tion and hope moving forward.

In dai­ly life we encoun­ter in our­sel­ves and others many moments, when we respond to com­p­laints and grie­van­ces with non-empa­thy, such as: igno­ring the mes­sa­ge or belitt­ling its signi­fi­can­ce, giving advice, fixing the pro­blem with some kind of action, edu­ca­ting someo­ne, one-upping it with our own sto­ries and a qui­te a few more.

I want to give an examp­le from my own life.

While we sit at bre­ak­fast, my wife shares an inter­ac­tion with one of her girl friends from the day befo­re. She says: “When I was tel­ling my girl friend that I have been on a diet for more than eight weeks and that I am hope­ful that I can keep my weight, she snap­ped at me with an angry voice ‘Do you know of anyo­ne who ever was able to keep their weight in the long run?!’ ” I was real­ly taken aback by this.

I respon­ded: “You know well, that she is unhap­py about her weight and at the moment does not find any ener­gy to start a diet. You should have been mind­ful of her dif­fi­cult situation.”

When I say this, I wrong my wife and try to edu­ca­te her to do it bet­ter next time. This is not empa­thy, this is (unasked for) education.

Sympathy might sound like this: “Wow, this is so pain­ful! I wish you would have bet­ter friends!” 

Empathy might sound like: “Are you fee­ling sad thin­king of this and do you have a need for cele­bra­ti­on?” This might not be the need ali­ve, but if I am open and curious my wife will tell me more, if the need for cele­bra­ti­on does not reso­na­te or if the­re is more.

A Quote Collection from Marshall Rosenberg
Brene Brown on Empathy vs. Sympathy
A Concept Analaysis of Empathy by Theresa Wiseman