Empathy versus Sympathy

Psychologists, counsellors, nurses, or anyone in a caring profession require EMPATHY.

What exactly is empathy? 

Carl Rogers (1957), the founder of person-centred therapy, defined it as:

to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the as if condition.

All too often empathy and sympathy can be confused, but understanding the difference between the two can make us more effective communicators.

What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?

  • To express sympathy is to make it known that you are aware of another’s distress and that you have compassion for them.

  • To express empathy takes things a step further by not only expressing compassion but also showing a deeper level of understanding by entering into the other person’s experience.


Imagine being at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Peer up to the top of the hole and you might see some of your friends and family waiting for you, offering words of support and encouragement.  This is sympathy; they want to help you out of the pit you have found yourself in. This can assist, but not as much as the person who is standing beside you; the person who is in that hole with you and can see the world from your perspective; this is empathy.


On the surface, there is very little difference between empathy and sympathy, so why is it so important to distinguish the two?

Expressing sympathy can leave a person feeling that people have taken pity on them, or are feeling sorry for them, which can create a sense of inferiority and disempowerment.

A more effective approach would be to take a position that does not allow for a hierarchy to form, but that enables everyone to feel on the same emotional level.  This more effective form of communication can only come with expressing empathy.

There are a number of ways in which empathy can be offered, including:

  • Reflecting a person’s expressed feelings back to them

  • Paraphrasing what a person has said to you to demonstrate an understanding.

Examples of sympathy versus empathy are shown in the box below. Empathy indicates your presence, conveys an understanding of the other person’s thoughts and feelings, and provides reassurance that no judgements are being made.




I am so sorry about your loss.

How awful. Poor you.

Let me do that for you.

I feel so sad for you.

I feel your grief.

I understand this has been a great loss for you.

Can I help you with that?

I feel and understanding your pain.

Empathy is not just useful as a tool to use when someone is in distress, it does have wider uses.  For example, in our work and personal life we will meet many people with differing views and perspectives on life.  People may express political or religious views that differ from our own and which can lead to barriers in communication.  The use of empathic dialogue can serve to prevent such barriers.


Rogers, C. (1957) ‘The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change’, Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21 (2): 95-103

Categories: Counselling, Nursing

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23 replies

  1. Interesting post Nicola, sympathy isn’t much use without empathy. Also it would be possible to feel empathy without the sympathy. I think the two together is what people need in times of grief/stress.

  2. Interesting point, Susan. Can you have one without the other? Now you have me thinking!

  3. May I suggest further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.

    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

  4. Thanks for sharing the link, Edwin. Great work.

  5. Please could I use this image of empathy to put in the person centred art therapy asociation news letter ?

  6. Please do, Lisa. Do you have a link for the newsletter – sounds very interesting.

    • Thank You Nicola
      I greatly appreciate your giving me permission to use the image (I will of course reference it)
      The Newsletter is not yet available online – but this is something we are working on for the future….the group does have a page on facebook – if you are interested ?
      The Next Edition is to be released in March – im currently working on the last bits and pieces – in particular looking for up and coming events within the counselling and art therapy sector (from March on-wards)
      Please feel free to keep in touch with me.

      Wishing you a Happy New Year :o)

  7. My co workers & girlfriends & I have discussed a lot about husbands & boyfriend & this subject comes up a lot. He is a good leader, life coach, a spiritual man of God, he knows sympathy well but has trouble with emapthy. This is driving a wedge between us mostly on my part both romantically & physical connection. I will pass this article on, thx!

  8. Great article. In DrW Life Skills Institute we focuses in the development of empathy as one of the Emotional Intelligence abilities. Thanks for this collaboration.

  9. As an executive coach I help my clients become full time empathic listeners. There is great confusion in the literature of the difference between feeling empathy and feeling sympathy. I can feel empathy for someone who I have no sympathy. For example, someone I know has a friend who dies in an accident. I know my friend is very sad about the persons demise. However, I know this person has done many evil acts. He is not my friend. I do not feel sympathy at his demise, however, I feel empathy for my friend because I know what it is like when someone I love dies. I feel empathy but not sympathy. My clients get confused about these two words until I tell them this story.

  10. Hi! I’ve just been browsing your site and feel that you might want to take a look at your explanation of empathy vs sympathy. The detail in the box to my knowledge appears to be the wrong way round. It’s the person next to you in the hole who is giving you sympathy. And the person you need is the empathic one looking in. They can help give you the tools to get out of that hole, a bit like throwing you a rope. The person in the hole is stuck there with you and neither of you can get out.
    Wondering why I needed to comment as part of me feels it really doesn’t matter, but I suppose I don’t want it to be misleading for readers. Possibly it’s letting go of the control? Well there you have it…I’ve done it now
    Yours respectfully, Lisa

    • Hi Lisa, I am pleased you felt able to share your thoughts – that is important here and I want you to feel able to contribute regardless of whether you agree or not 🙂 I find your own perspective on empathy interesting and it has given me some food for thought. I do, however, stick by my own belief – that someone offering empathy gets in the hole with you, rather than merely looks down at you. This is what I do as a counsellor – enter the person’s world and journey with them to a better place.

      Do keep sharing, Lisa!

  11. In empathy you cannot violate the rule, principles and culture norms to help another person but in sympathy there are no such limits , my personal views


    • Empathy is not merely an ability of humans. Many animals possess the ability to be empathetic to humans as well as other species. Empathy means that an animal understands how another animal feels without having to have the same event occur to them. For example, I can feel empathy for you if your child is injured even if my son does not suffer the same injury. I would feel sympathy if my child had the same or similar injury . . . sympathetic means I understand because it happened to me, empathetic means that I understand event though it has not happened to me. You can feel empathy for sad moments in life and you can feel empathy for happy moments.

      • I have seen empathy in animals other than humans. there is a special part of the human brain that facilitates empathy. When that part of the brain is damaged, people cease being empathic. I have known one sociopathic person, he felt empathy but did not care. He used his ability to be empathic to prey on others. I have known many empathic men and women who used their ability to know how others feel to give them comfort. Dogs and cats often respond to humans because they sense our feelings. My ox always knows how I feel. He responses appropriate to my feelings. I have worked with this ox for nine years, we know each other emotionally very well.

  12. What a great topic, Nicola. I am a former professor of counseling psychology, now 71, who “grew up” in the Carl Rogers era. (as an aside … I’m surprised that no one commented on the misspelling of counselor as “counsellor” which is the terminology used for lawyers, many of whom have little understanding of either concept).
    The key to understanding the differences between sympathy and empathy lies in the quoted Rogers phrase … “as if one were the person.”
    In empathy we are seeking to understand the particular thought, feeling, or experience through the eyes of the other person, not through our own eyes (or ideation). That is why Rogers values the art and skill of “reflective” responses by the listener which attempt to capture the meanings and feelings of the other as they are experienced by that other person with minimum distortion from filtering through the listener’s life experiences and thoughts and perceptions. In short, it can be simplisticly explained as being inside the other and looking through their eyes or feeling as they feel. As no two people ever see or feel exactly the same and as each person’s experiences are different one to another, the act of empathy is always an approximation. The ability to be empathic or empathetic is a matter of degree, but the attempt to be genuinely empathic is usually received well by the other.
    If we develop the skill of reflective listening and express back to the other person what we are hearing and understanding them to say or feel, and they say back … “that’s it” or ” exactly” or “yeah” followed by more commentary … then we are probably being empathic.
    With sympathy, we are responding from our own “frame of refernce,” based on our own life experiences or understandings. Thus, one of the examples of empathy is in fact sympathy … “I feel your grief.” We cannot feel someone else’s grief. We can simply relate to it using our own experience with grief. Sympathy is when we use our own frame of reference to perceive someone else’s situation. We are looking through our own eyes and heart to express how WE feel about the other person’s situation or state of being.
    A frequently stated but misguided though well intentioned statement is “I know just how you feel” … which is a poorly worded expression of sympathy and the inverse of empathy.
    Thank you for posting the topic.
    Keep on keeping on.
    Dr. Rob

    • I have met only a few people who understand the difference between sympathy and empathy. Most people I speak to have never seen the word empathy. I use the words “empathic listening” every day. I coach my clients to become full time empathic listeners. Until they have developed this way of being as a habit they tend not to listen to their loved ones with empathy. Their habit is to stop listening with empathy with their loved ones when the topic is important. I want my clients to listen with empathy at those important moments in life. I want them to stay with the moment and understand what is troubling their loved ones before they attempt to give their loved one’s aid. Your explanation of the difference between empathy and sympathy appears correct and useful, but the public uses these words as though they had the same meaning.

      I first learned the difference when someone told me the story about two men on a ship on the ocean. One man is standing next to the rail vomiting his guts out because he is seasick. When the second man walks up to him if he is sympathetic he also vomits; while if he is empathic he merely understands how the first man feels, even if he has never been seasick.

      Another idea that helps explain the difference is in the sending of a Sympathy card when a death occurs. The sympathy card tells the reader that “I share your feelings of loss.” If I were to send an empathy card it might read, “I know that you must be sad about the loss of your loved one, he was important to you, but for myself, I am glad that the SOB is gone, he gave me a lot of trouble.” Empathy means that I understand how you feel but I may not share your feelings, while in sympathy I know and I experienced a loss similar to yours.

      • Interesting ideas, Philip ! Your observation that sympathy and empathy are almost always used interchangeably fits with my experience. It reminds me also of how anomie and anomia are often used interchangeably. Not sure we’ll see a change in my life-time.

        Your illustration of difference portrayed in the SOB example made me smile. Rogers and others from his era (including myself) went to great extent to show that accurately reflecting the “other’s” experience lies at the heart of empathy. So your example, although missing the mark, is very useful in showing the distinction between “accurate empathy” and a failed attempt … as we have no way of knowing if the “other” considered the deceased to be a SOB. We can never respond with truly empathy when injecting a point of view from our own “frame of reference” that is different from that of the “other.”

        As accurate reflection is the test of empathy, we can be guided by the “other’s” response if they say …
        “Yeah.” or “Exactly.” or by their continuing in an amplified way instead of shutting down because they don’t feel accurately understood.

        Great that you struggle with these important concepts. Wish there were more people on earth like yourself.


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