Empathy is not Sympathy


Hi All,

I continue to witness how many people confuse empathy with sympathy.  They are not the same.

Just the other day, I was having a conversation with a high-level law enforcement leader.  I mentioned the value and importance of empathy for Law Enforcement, Police, and Security Professionals.  He quickly nodded, affirming that he agreed.  Then he made a statement where he explicitly made synonymous the words empathy and love.  He even added that too much of it (referring to empathy but, in his mind, equating it with love) could lead the Law Enforcement Officer, Police Officer, or Security Professional to be a “pushover” (his word).  He was getting it all wrong.

If Contact Professionals are to be competent, we must absolutely put to rest this confusion between empathy and sympathy.  And we must absolutely leverage deep empathy to do our jobs well and to stay safe.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

The same dictionary defines sympathy as:

An affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other,”


Inclination to think or feel alike: emotional or intellectual accord.

See the difference between empathy and sympathy?  With empathy, we have the ability to be aware of what a person is thinking or feeling.  With sympathy, however, it’s beyond and different than empathy, implying that we actually think or feel similar to the person.  Empathy grants intel, while sympathy is more like we are actually sharing their perspective.

With empathy, commonly defined as standing in the shoes of another, or being able to look through the eyes of another, one is able to grasp how another person views the world or a situation.  Note that there is no need to necessarily take as one’s own perspective the perspective of another just because you’re standing in his shoes or looking through his eyes.  Indeed, you may completely disagree with what the person is thinking, feeling, and/or doing.  It is simply the most powerful way of figuring out how a person views a situation or the world.  For the Contact Professional, this is a vitally essential skill, as it grants us the power to better persuade the person by talking to what really is motivating him/her.  This is the essence of all quality conflict communication.

This is, however, not sympathy.  We are not being affected by the other’s thinking.  We are not sharing the thinking.  We are not feeling what they feel, in the sense that it’s motivating us to agree with them or share a common perspective.

Example: If I am a criminal investigator trying to track down a murderer, I’ll be using deep empathy as a tactical tool.  By figuring out how the killer thinks, and imagining in my mind what he is thinking, how he thinks, I increase my chances of predicting how he may behave, where and how he may target his next victim, etc.  I will not, though, be having sympathy for him by sharing his thinking.  And I surely won’t be mistaking my tactical use of empathy for love!

One of the most powerful depictions of empathy can be found in the film Manhunter.  Watch that film for highly instructive passages on how the FBI criminal profiler (played by William Petersen) skillfully uses empathy as a tactical tool to think as the killer thinks in order to track him down and stop him.  Interestingly, in some parts of the film, he actually shows how one can hold both empathy and sympathy in a single narrative.  He both expresses and differentiates between the two.  How instructive this is!

From the Forward of George J. Thompson’s classic book on conflict communication, Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, is the instructive passage:

George Thompson never wanted people to confuse sympathy with empathy; we can feel the pain of others by merely asking ourselves how we would feel under identical circumstances.  Verbal Judo does not require turning the other cheek or the use of touchy-feely language, and does not push political correctness; we must communicate our purpose, but we are not required to respect wrongful actions.”

Dr. George Thompson, the creator of Verbal Judo, referred (in the aforementioned book) to empathy as “the single most powerful concept in the English language.”  Another highly instructive passage from this perennial classic on conflict communication includes:

Often the best way of reading your target audience is to see the person the way he sees himself.  Which is the true essence of empathy.

Those trained in Verbal Judo (and those systems inspired by it) know that when in doubt or whenever one can’t quite identify exactly what tactic to use, just use empathy.  When in doubt how to create a non-escalatory environment or conversation, use empathy.   When in doubt how to more effectively calm others rather than agitate them, use empathy.  As Dr. Thompson puts it: “Empathy absorbs tension.

When it comes to how important empathy is to the Contact Professional’s job, Dr. Thompson shares:

This is the communication warrior’s real service: staying calm in the midst of conflict, deflecting verbal abuse, and offering empathy in the face of antagonism.  If you cannot empathize with people, you don’t stand a chance of getting them to listen to you, much less accepting your attempts to help – sincere as you may be.

If you take a moment to think as another might be thinking, then speak with his perspective in mind, you can gain immediate rapport.  Ill-fitting as his shoes may be, walk a few steps in them.  Only then can you provide real understanding and reassurance.  Only then can you help that person see the consequences of what he is doing or is about to do.  Only then can you help him make enlightened decisions.

Let the non-Contact Professional confuse empathy and sympathy.  There is, however, no excuse whatsoever for a Contact Professional (i.e., Law Enforcement Officer, Police Officer, Healthcare Security Professional, Security Professional, Parking Enforcement Professional, Communications Dispatch Professional,  Customer Service Professional, Telephone Operator, Leader, etc.) to be allowed to remain confused about the two.  For if they are confused, the Contact Professional is sacrificing one of the most powerful tools – indeed the most powerful – in the management of human conflict.

Let’s conclude with the words of Dr. George Thompson:

Let me clarify that while empathizing essentially means standing in the shoes of another or seeing through the eyes of another, I’m not suggesting you have to agree with that person.  Obviously I didn’t agree with the superstitious man who held his own son hostage and thought he had to blood-let him.  But everyone is entitled to a point of view, right or wrong, just or unjust.  Don’t agree; just try to understand where the person is coming from.

Too many people confuse empathy with sympathy.  You don’t have to sympathize with or approve of another’s actions or words.  Just empathize and see how powerful it makes you.  Don’t do it to be nice; do it because it’s the only way to hit upon a proper appeal.

All quotes by George Thompson are taken from his classic, Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion.


2 thoughts on “Empathy is not Sympathy

  1. Robert, this gives a wonderful understanding of empathy and sympathy and highlights the importance of empathy. It is sadly missing in the young lives and somehow should be expressed in the formative years. What a very different world this would be if we only had the ability to see from someone else’s eyes, without necessarily having to agree with them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Sonya,

      Thank you for your visit and comments!

      I agree with you wholeheartedly about empathy. A deep empathy could transform families, organizations, societies, the entire world.

      All good wishes,



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