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

Tags: , , , ,

16 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



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