It’s helpful to trace and understand the origin of the two words. For a more elaborate explanation, read this article, empathy vs sympathy.
I’ll summarize here.
Empathy was brought into the English language from the German word Both are acts of feeling. With sympathy, you feel FOR the person. You may or may not fully understand their predicament, situation, problem or feelings.
With sympathy, you feel sorry for the person. With empathy, you truly understand the sorrow, from their perspective and the world they endure as a result.
Empathy takes more work. It requires more imagination in that in order to empathize with a person, you must attempt to understand their thoughts: walk in their moccasins, so to speak. Empathy helps you identify with and feel closer to the other person.
While sympathy is also a tender feeling, it keeps you at a distance and sometimes even a bit above the person. Your perspective reflects that the person is somehow not only less fortunate than you but also ‘less than’ you, at least at the moment. The ‘less than’ may an assessment of their (perhaps temporary) competence or power level.
The most frequent expression of sympathy is felt when you hear that a person you know has lost someone close to them to death. Feeling sympathy is almost an immediate reaction on our part. Empathy would step in if you were very close to the survivor and understood, to a strong degree what the impact of that loss actually meant to them. it might also kick in if you’ve lost someone
yourself and can actually experience that feeling of grief.
So, how does one bring empathy into existence when there is no tragedy to demand its emergence?
Here are three ways to sharpen your instinct for empathy.
1. Practice recognizing the signs that you’re about to distance yourself and dismiss the other person.
Empathy is an exercise in self-awareness and flexibility. When you sense an arising experience of some negative emotion (disgust, sadness, anger, resentment), know that the first signal is your OWN emotion. Once you know it’s YOUR reaction you’re trying to tame (rather than the other person’s), you’ll have more success in flexing and responding.
2. Imagine the other person’s life and try to feel what they are currently feeling.
Take into consideration not only their current life, but years past that have formed their perspective and outlook on life. Be curious about how they have come to adopt their opinions. Ask open-ended questions that will help shine a light on their internal thoughts and help you understand them.
3. Legitimize their feelings
Even if you struggle to understand the feelings or opinions yourself, acknowledge that the perspective is a legitimate one for the person holding it. When you tell them you could see how they came to believe what they believe, it will be easier to have a meaningful dialog. The natural tendency is to disagree with them; to dismiss them as a nut-case. It’s hard to solve problems when you each think your ‘adversary’ is a lunatic. Someone has to have some collaborative energy. It might as well be you.
As Michael Jackson said, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways.” If you’re always looking for someone else to change their ways, they won’t. If you keep denying their opinion, they’ll hold on to it that much stronger. Meet them where they are. That’s how you find common ground.