Compassion, Sympathy and Empathy

I have been doing some thinking about empathic communication and how it differs from other concepts. The three most common terms you will hear used similarly are compassion, sympathy and empathy. There is a difference between them and certainly the way in which Dr. Marshall Rosenberg teaches empathic communication is very different than the other two.

Compassion involves wanting to help others. Most often you feel moved by their circumstances and want to help somehow. You don’t have to have empathy to have compassion. There are many ways we can be compassionate, many ways we can help others.

Sympathy is traditionally thought of as being aware of another’s emotions, sharing those emotions, and perhaps having an urge to help. The key is feeling the emotions. With sympathy you feel the emotions “for” the other person, not “with” the other person. Pity is involved with sympathy, feeling “sorry” for someone.

Empathy is something deeper than both sympathy and compassion. Empathy described by Dr. Rosenberg involves both feelings and thoughts. We share another’s emotions, not “for” them, but “with” them. And we also have a deep understanding about what is going on for the person. Not that we have to understand their story, but we understand their needs. The two of these together lead to a connection with the person that is so deep that you find you have disappeared and the other person is the whole experience shared by the two of you. Our emotions come from needs, met and unmet. So in that moment, when I’m connected to you, my need is to understand you. As I get that need met I feel peace and satisfaction. I may also decide as I come to understand your needs in that moment, that they are my needs also, and I will share your emotions.

It’s the connection that is so important with empathy. For example, I’ve decided to go serve food at a homeless kitchen. With compassion I see the need for food the homeless people have, and want to help. I’m happy to be in the kitchen, on the serving line, wherever I’m needed to help. With sympathy I may see the homeless people in line and feel very sad, thinking, “how awful to be in that situation”. I feel “sorry” for them. This more than likely reinforces my desire to want to help. Empathy is going to require I talk with the people I’m wanting to help. And talk to them with the desire to understand what is going on for them, in this moment. It involves setting aside the stories I may have of who these people are, how they got here, and being open to hearing what is going on for them in this moment.

With empathy you are requesting they have a connection with you. Because with empathic communication you understand that everything we do is about ourselves. They are giving you the opportunity to contribute, how wonderful. You might tell someone you are thankful for being given the opportunity to come help with lunch, and you would also enjoy getting to know people more. You would enjoy having some understanding about what is going on for them. Would they be willing to have this conversation?

Sympathy really involves no connection, and compassion may, but it’s more about the act of helping. Empathy is all about connection. Empathic communication is the language of life according to Dr. Rosenberg.

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