The concepts of sympathy and empathy are important communication skills that we employ in our training, but many people confuse the two words or use them interchangeably.

This recent commentary on a blog post might help clear up any confusion between the two.

I think you will find Doug Lynch’s initial post and Jeff Mehring’s comments interesting, important, and timely in a world where “compassion fatigue” seems to more often the rule than the exception.


Comment explaining sympathy and empathy

Doug’s observations are absolutely correct, the approach the staff member took is/was a better approach; however, I found that “empathy” and “sympathy” may fall short of providing a full picture and could lead individuals to the conclusion that “sympathy” is a poor or even inappropriate response.

True sympathy involves feeling sorry for someone. That is why there is an entire industry dedicated to producing “sympathy cards” and I think we can agree that the purchase and sending of a sympathy card is a good and appropriate response.

True empathy is the ability to feel what the other person is feeling and involves an almost vicarious kind of experience. If the staff member had consoled Doug because she too had experienced a loss, it would have sounded something like this:

“Doug, I am so sorry for the grief you are experiencing, I have lost pets too, I can relate. It helped me to remember that my beloved pet wasn’t in pain anymore.”

That is a statement of empathy, the ability to feel what the other person is feeling. If the staff member hasn’t experienced what Doug is going through, then the first statement, “She isn’t in pain anymore” is a statement of sympathy.

While both sympathy and empathy are good things, to act compassionately based upon these positions is a higher calling. This is why we have sympathy cards and not compassion cards.

Compassion is sympathy and/or empathy acted upon. The action of the staff member who felt sympathy for Doug was an act of compassion.

Compassion is the larger picture which better defines what Doug experienced and doesn’t place sympathy and empathy as opponents, instead it makes them teammates with a higher calling (game plan) called compassion.

– Jeff Mehring Regional Director of Safety and Security Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare

Your thoughts

So what do you think about this definition of sympathy and empathy? How about compassion being the higher calling?

I hope these definitions will help expand your communication skills toolbox.



Vistelar Group –