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For many years, I was able to convince myself that I understood the difference between these two emotive terms. However, upon researching and presenting the

SALES CLASSMASTER course for , I noted an extensive amount of emphasis placed on empathy before sympathy.

Having thought I understood the difference between these two terms, it bothered me that I was unable to fully explain the difference between them.

So, without further ado, below is a simplified and very understandable summary

(With special thanks to the resources available online : most especially the two videos presented by Dr Brené Brown as well as )

EMPATHY is an emotion that has the following three important parts:

COGNITIVE – how we FEEL when we hear news.

- Do we feel sad, disgusted, relieved, aggressive, upset?

EMOTIVE – how we THINK when we hear the news.

- In other words, we start a process of ‘putting ourselves’ into their shoes’.

- We THINK ‘’what if this happened to me?’’

EMPATHIC – how we ACT upon completing the FEEL and THINK part of the process.

- What do we do once we have unpacked the emotions felt?


Sympathy only engages the COGNITIVE part of the process…

We allow ourselves to express the emotions that we FEEL when we hear the news: relieved, happy sad, upset, disgusted etc.

And that’s where it ends!

A sympathiser does not feel the need to continue and go to the THINK and ACT part.

In many situations, it will involve a hug of sympathy or a quiet word of consoling, but ‘sympathy’ makes it clear that the receiver of the news is unable to offer more.

Essentially, it is a case of, ‘’I really FEEL for you but if I THINK and ACT more on this feeling, it would not be beneficial to either myself or the person who gave me the news.”

On the other end of the scale is empathy. I think you will agree that as sympathy does not take the form of thinking or acting on the emotion. Empathy on the other hand, is a very intense emotion that expresses a real deep desire, or intention, to help, more than ‘FEELING SORRY’ for another.

Picture the following situation of a person going through a difficult event in their lives.

We can liken this to someone who, while walking a straight road, plummets down a sinkhole into a place they can only describe as a deep, dark and depressing place.

Now, 3 different people walk the same road moments, all of them seeing the large hole in the road.

1. The non-sympathetic person completely avoids going near the hole most likely already anticipating that someone may need their help (help they cannot provide due to any number of reasons at the time.)

2. The sympathetic person would not only be curious but will also want to see if everything is alright. They will lean into this large hole and ask the person in this horrible place what happened?

Upon hearing of the distressful situation that the person is in, the sympathiser would most likely say something like:

‘’Hang in there, you will find your way out. I have been where you are and trust me, it will get better’’.

After these words, the sympathiser will walk away, without THINKING or ACTING on their what they are FEELING.

Now…along comes the:

3. EMPATHISER. The person who, not only asks what is going on, they truly feel and think about the pain as if they were in the hole themselves. From there the need to ACT will begin to set in…WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?

Next thing you know, the empathiser has found a way into the hole and is hugging the helpless person in there, strategizing the way to get out together so that the person is NOT ALONE.


Before I leave it there, I need to add the following:

1. THE SYMPATHISER is NOT an insensitive person

- they either have a natural disposition or have chosen to FEEL and then they have made the decision not to take things further.

- We do not, under any circumstances, have the right to judge either the non-sympathetic person or the sympathiser. The sympathiser either by natural inclination or by choice, has made the conscious effort to engage and FEEL.

- We all have moments like this where we decide that THINKING and ACTING may be counterproductive to either the hurt person OR ourselves.


- I am not going to get to too deep into the dangers in the ACTING phase of empathy, but I do want to highlight the real problem that most EMPATHISERS face – and that is the getting TOO INVOLVED when helping to sort the problem out.

- We have all been there – a close friend or family member DOESN’T LISTEN TO THE ADVICE GIVEN or simply DOESN’T GET IT… and this causes frustration as you see them sinking into their grief, depression, anger or sadness. All you really want is to get them out of this horrid sinkhole of desperation.

- KNOW THAT SOMETIMES YOUR ADVICE ON WHAT TO DO IS NOT WHAT THEY NEED AT THE TIME – FOR THEM IT MAY FEEL NEGATIVE OR HARMFUL as they may feel that you have not understood their wants and needs properly.

This is what you are thinking when you act:


This is often all they want to have you do:


I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed researching and presenting it.

In closing, I urge you to think like the GOOD SAMARITAN. If you do not about know this 2000-year-old parable – let me quickly fill you in.

Jesus told a parable about a traveler who is stripped of clothing, beaten, and left half dead alongside the road. No one knows his name, where he is from or where he is going.

First a Jewish leader and then a Levite come by, but both avoid the man – they effectively walk around the person who has fallen down the sinkhole of pain!

Finally, a Samaritan gives freely of his time and money to make an effort to nurse the traveler back to good health.


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