Empathy 101


Empathy is your ability to identify with and understand the feelings, situations, and motives of another being (Websters New Riverside University Dictionary, 1984). from their point of view. The role that empathy plays in the society as a whole is to encourage helping behaviors (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/empathy ) as opposed to having those behaviors mandated by society’s enforcement programs.

The Difference between Empathy and Sympathy

Empathy and Sympathy are closely related in concept and definition, and we often use the two interchangeably. However, it is important to understand the differences between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is the feeling of sadness, pity, sorrow, or distress for another (Websters New Riverside University Dictionary, 1984).

When you empathize with someone’s situation, you are making a genuine attempt to see a problem, situation, or event from their perspective. Empathy serves an important role in communication, forgiveness, and trust. It also serves to help us to all be better people. On the other hand, Sympathy is just the act of feeling sorry for someone when life puts them in a difficult situation. It serves no purpose, and rarely motivates us to take action for a greater good.

The primary difference between empathy and sympathy can best be described as the difference in action you may take if your dog begins limping for no apparent reason.

  • Empathy: You take your dog to the vet so you can try to gain an understanding of why she’s in pain, what caused the issue, and how you can help to alleviate her pain.
  • Sympathy: You feel sorry for your dog because she’s in pain, but you take no action.

Empathy and Sympathy can also be separated in the differences between rubbernecking and stopping to help that stranger on the side of the highway who’s trying to change their tire. Feeling sympathy for another is far easier and takes much less energy than expressing empathy.

Empathy is further separated from Sympathy in the fact that Empathy can be positive and negative. Sympathy is always negative because it’s the emotions of pity or sorrow for someone else’s loss or despair. Sharing in the joy of a friend who just got engaged, or the despair of a family member who just got laid off are both experiences of Empathy.

Types of Empathy

There are three types of Empathy (https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/there-are-actually-3-types-of-empathy-heres-how-they-differ-and-how-you-can-develop-them-all.html ). All of these are used in any situation where you fully deploy empathy as a mechanism or part of any social interaction.

  • Cognitive Empathy
  • Emotional Empathy
  • Compassionate Empathy

Cognitive Empathy is the base. It’s where your ability to understand how a person might be feeling in any given situation begins. Emotional Empathy may also be referred to as Affective or Social Empathy. It’s your ability to share the feelings of another person.

 This is where building emotional connections with our significant others begins. Empathic Concern, or Compassionate Empathy, is what acts upon us to take action. In the end, this last form of Empathy is the key difference between true empathy and sympathy in negative situations. In communication, Cognitive Empathy plays the largest role of sharing a mood or expressing your intention in a meaningful way.

The Importance of Empathy

Empathy plays an important role in society because it allows each of us to connect with one another on a level that goes deeper than the superficial. It’s what implores us to take action when we see an animal or another human suffering rather than just standing over their despair feeling pity. It’s the difference between saying something and taking action.

Empathy is the tool in our life-skill arsenal that we depend on for effectively communicating with others from our own culture, and with those we want to communicate with across cultures. It’s absolutely essential in building trust. Finally, it’s the key ingredient in forgiveness.


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