The difference between sympathy and empathy

Someone has fallen down a well. Sympathy stands above the well and calls down: “How awful! I’m so sorry for you!” Empathy climbs down into the well and says: “It’s dark down here, that must be hard for you.” Indifference says: “I don’t have a well. That will never happen to me.”

Strikes a chord? How many times have we turned to someone for support but not elicited the response we had hoped for, and ended up feeling hurt. Often this is unintentional. Empathy is tricky, but like many things it is a skill, and it can be learned, improved on and mastered. Empathy, is one of the reasons that we search around for other people who have had the same experiences as we had, so that they “get it”. Don’t get me wrong, sympathy is a million times preferable to indifference, but if you can master it, empathy is the skill to aspire towards. I use the “well” scenario if I need guidance with how to react to someone else’s distress or problem.

Imagine that you are struggling to load your horse. Frustrated by your efforts, you turn to someone on your yard. You could get a variety of responses.

“Well my horse loads.”

“How awful.”

“It’s difficult when horses don’t load, I have had one that didn’t load. That must be a concern for you.”

Which response is the best? The third one! If you then want advice turn to that person.

Remember that this applies the other way round, so if someone comes to you with a problem, try and respond with empathy. Even if, to you, their problem seems small, or easily solvable, simply responding to someone with kindness and empathy can go a long way towards making that person feel supported and heard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.