Sympathy vs. Empathy vs. Compassion: What is the Difference?

8 April 2024

Sympathy Empathy Compassion

Introduction to Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion are terms that are often used interchangeably, but there are important distinctions between them. Broadly speaking, sympathy involves acknowledging another person’s suffering and feeling sorrow or concern for their troubles. Empathy is the ability to actually understand and share the feelings of another. Compassion takes this a step further through expressing care and the desire to help relieve suffering.

While related, these concepts describe different approaches and mindsets when encountering hardship in others. Understanding the nuances allows us to better connect with people during difficult times in their lives.

Key Differences Between Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion are often used interchangeably, but there are some clear distinctions between them that are important to understand.

Sympathy involves feeling sorrow or concern for someone else’s suffering. It literally means “feeling with” someone – being able to understand and share in their emotion and distress. However, sympathy does not necessarily require fully understanding the other person’s experience. Sympathy is more feeling oriented.

Empathy goes deeper and involves the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their experiences, thoughts, and feelings from their perspective. Empathy requires seeing the world through the lens of another person and imagining yourself in their situation. It is understanding on an emotional level what another person is going through.

Compassion takes empathy one step further and transforms understanding into action. Having compassion means not only empathizing with someone’s suffering but being moved to help relieve it. Compassion is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for others. It motivates a desire to take action to improve the situation.

The main distinction is that sympathy is about sharing feelings, empathy is about sharing experiences, and compassion is about acting with care, kindness and service. Sympathy expresses sorrow for someone’s pain. Empathy steps into their experience. Compassion then motivates steps to assist them.

Sympathy Explained

Sympathy is feeling sorrow or concern for someone else’s suffering or misfortune. It involves feeling bad for their situation and being emotionally moved by their distress. Sympathy demonstrates that you relate to what the other person is going through and that you care about their hardship.

When you feel sympathetic towards someone, you put yourself in their shoes and imagine what it must be like for them. You do not actually experience their emotions yourself, but you recognize their pain and want to alleviate their suffering. Sympathy shows that you can understand and validate the difficult emotions they are experiencing.

Some ways to demonstrate sympathy include:

  • Saying “I’m sorry” or “I’m sorry you are going through this.” This validates their situation and communicates that you care.
  • Giving your condolences if someone experienced a loss or setback. Saying “You have my deepest condolences” shows you feel sorrow for their misfortune.
  • Sending a sympathy card or flowers when someone experiences a loss or hardship. This is a thoughtful gesture showing you are thinking of them.
  • Speaking in a caring, compassionate tone of voice and avoiding judgment.
  • Being willing to listen, give comfort, and provide support.

Sympathy demonstrates thoughtfulness, understanding, and emotional resonance with another person’s distress or misfortune. It is an important emotional response when someone is dealing with a difficult circumstance in their life.

How to Practice Sympathy

When someone is going through a difficult time, showing sympathy can provide comfort and support. Here are some tips for practicing sympathy:

  • Listen without judgment. Allow the person to share their feelings without criticizing or blaming them. Avoid saying things like “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
  • Validate their emotions. Let them know it’s understandable to feel pain, grief, anger, etc. You can say things like “It’s okay to feel sad right now. Anyone would feel that way after going through this.”
  • Don’t minimize their suffering. Don’t say things like “It could be worse” or “At least you have your health.” This can make people feel guilty for being upset.
  • Offer care and concern. Use a gentle, caring tone and make eye contact to show you sincerely care. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help.
  • Avoid comparing experiences. Don’t share your own similar experiences. This can come across as one-upping them or shifting the focus. Keep the attention on their situation.
  • Provide physical comfort. Offer a tissue, hand squeeze, hug (if appropriate), or just your presence. This shows you want to relieve their suffering in a caring way.

Practicing these skills can help people feel heard, validated, and cared for when dealing with pain or adversity. Showing sympathy compassionately is an act of humanity.

Empathy Explained

Empathy is the ability to deeply understand and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another person. It goes beyond sympathy, which is feeling sorrow or concern for someone’s suffering. With empathy, you make an effort to truly put yourself in the other person’s shoes, to imagine what it’s like to be them and how they feel.

Empathy involves perspective-taking – trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes. You imagine yourself in their situation, tune in to their emotions and reactions, and try to comprehend their inner world. This allows you to connect with them on a deeper emotional level.

Some key aspects of empathy include:

  • Actually feeling what the other person is feeling. Their emotions evoke a mirroring emotional response in you.
  • Understanding why they feel that way based on their unique perspective and experience.
  • Being non-judgmental and open-minded when listening to their story and internal world.
  • Communicating your understanding through words and body language. Letting them know “I understand how you feel” without projecting your own assumptions.
  • Providing validation by accepting their thoughts, feelings, and experiences as true for them.
  • Allowing them to freely express themselves without trying to change their perspective.

The benefits of empathy include forming deeper human connections, reducing conflicts, improving teamwork and leadership, and providing better care and support for people. It takes practice to develop true empathy, but it is a valuable skill for relationships and society.

How to Practice Empathy

Empathy involves seeing the world through another person’s perspective and actively listening to understand their experiences and emotions. Here are some tips for practicing empathy:

  • Try to imagine yourself in the other person’s situation. Think about how you would feel if you were facing the same challenges or circumstances. Suspend any judgments and try to see their perspective without prejudice.
  • Ask open-ended questions to draw the person out and understand what they are thinking and feeling. Avoid giving advice or problem-solving. The goal is to listen, understand, and validate their inner world.
  • Pay close attention to the person’s words, tone, body language and other cues. What might their nonverbal signals suggest about how they feel? What are they not saying directly?
  • Paraphrase what the person said to check that you understand accurately. Reflect back what you heard in your own words.
  • Express empathy through validating statements like “It makes sense you would feel sad in that situation” or “I can understand why you would see it that way.” Make it clear you comprehend their feelings.
  • Withhold any judgments or opinions. Even if you see things differently, focus on accepting how the other person experiences it. Set aside your own biases.
  • Be present and engaged. Make eye contact, nod, and reassure them you are listening deeply. Provide space for them to fully share their thoughts without interruption.
  • Offer support by asking how you can help or what they need from you. Sometimes empathy is demonstrated through compassionate action, not just words.

Practicing these empathy skills takes effort but allows you to connect with others at a profound level. It builds understanding between people and helps avoid miscommunication.

Compassion Explained

Compassion is the deepest form of empathy and goes beyond simply understanding another’s suffering to also include the desire to help relieve that suffering. Compassion takes empathy one step further into action. Rather than just feeling for someone, compassion moves us to want to help ease their pain or hardship in some tangible way.

Some key qualities of compassion include:

  • Deep awareness of suffering – Truly seeing and acknowledging the pain or adversity someone is facing.
  • Feelings of kindness – Having an open heart, extending goodwill, and letting go of judgment.
  • Desire to help – Motivation to take action, big or small, to ease suffering and offer support.
  • Relief of suffering – Taking steps to provide comfort, meet needs, offer encouragement, or lighten burdens.
  • Wisdom – Understanding the nature of suffering and how to skillfully help, not harm.
  • Patience – Recognizing easing suffering takes time; having stamina to stay with the process.

Compassion takes presence, courage, and vulnerability. It means moving past our own discomfort to connect with others at a heart level. Practicing compassion helps us recognize our shared struggles and tap into our innate goodness. It brings people together in solidarity during difficult times. Compassion transforms hardship from an isolating experience into an opportunity for human understanding and connection.

How to Practice Compassion

Compassion is about taking action and offering kindness to help relieve the suffering of others. Here are some ways you can cultivate and practice compassion in your daily life:

Be kind and patient with others. Remember that everyone is going through their own struggles that you may not be aware of. So be gentle, don’t judge, and offer kindness even when someone may not seem to deserve it.

Listen deeply without judgment. When interacting with someone who is suffering, listen attentively and openly without letting your own opinions get in the way. Focus on understanding their experience from their perspective.

Perform small acts of kindness. Look for opportunities in your daily life to help others in small ways, like holding the door, giving up your seat, or buying a coffee for someone behind you in line. These small acts can make a big difference.

Give your time and energy. Volunteer or donate to organizations that help support people who are less fortunate or suffering in some way. Giving your time and compassion to help others in need is a powerful act of compassion.

Practice forgiveness. Letting go of anger or resentment towards others through forgiveness can be very liberating. Remember that we all make mistakes and we often judge ourselves far more harshly than others would.

Reflect on your shared humanity. When you are struggling to feel compassionate towards someone, try to reflect on the basic humanity you share. Chances are they want to be happy and avoid suffering just like you. This shared condition can help you find common ground.

Be generous towards yourself. Practicing self-compassion and care is key so you don’t end up burned out or depleted. Make sure to treat yourself with the same patience, understanding and kindness you offer others.

Benefits of Practicing Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion

Practicing sympathy, empathy, and compassion can provide many benefits that improve lives and relationships. By cultivating these qualities, we can ease the suffering of others while also experiencing personal growth.

  • Improved relationships: Showing sympathy, empathy, and compassion helps strengthen bonds between people. Others will feel more supported and less alone when we make the effort to understand and care for them during difficult times. Relationships become deeper through vulnerability, trust, and care.
  • Reduced suffering: When we act with sympathy, empathy, and compassion, we have the power to alleviate pain and make a positive difference for others. Small acts of kindness can provide comfort, lift spirits, and let people know they are valued. Suffering feels less heavy when carried together.
  • Personal growth: Exercising these qualities expands our ability to understand different perspectives, develop emotional intelligence, and care more deeply. We become less self-centered and more thoughtful of others’ wellbeing. Practicing sympathy, empathy, and compassion leads to growth in wisdom, patience, mindfulness, gratitude, and purpose.

Cultivating sympathy, empathy, and compassion enriches our lives and relationships. By reaching out to others with an open heart during times of hardship, we can find meaning, connection, and shared humanity.


In summary, sympathy, empathy, and compassion are different but related concepts. Sympathy involves feeling for someone’s suffering or misfortune. Empathy is actively trying to understand someone’s experience and perspective. Compassion takes it a step further by wanting to help relieve suffering through kindness and support.

Though similar, it’s important to recognize the nuances between them. Sympathy keeps you at a distance, while empathy and compassion bring you closer. Practicing empathy builds understanding. Having compassion leads to action. All three have value, but empathy and compassion tend to have deeper impacts.

Moving forward, reflect on times when others have shown you sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Think about how each made you feel and what you needed most in those moments. Use those reflections to guide how you interact with others. When someone is struggling, lead with empathy and compassion. Make an effort to truly understand their experience, offer comfort, give support, and see what they need. Small acts of kindness and compassion have immense power to lift others up.


Sheevo Blog Sidebar Newsletter

Related Articles

Curiosity: The Superpower for Career Success and Purpose

Curiosity: The Superpower for Career Success and Purpose

Unleash the superpower of curiosity to propel your career and discover your purpose. Dive into the transformative journey of exploration, learning, and growth. Embrace curiosity as your compass, guiding you towards fulfillment and success in a rapidly evolving world.

Mastering Self-Leadership: Empowering Yourself for Success

Mastering Self-Leadership: Empowering Yourself for Success

Embark on a journey of self-mastery with our guide on self-leadership. Unlock the keys to personal empowerment, resilience, and success as you navigate the complexities of modern life. Discover practical tips to cultivate self-awareness, set goals, and thrive in any endeavor.

Unlocking Creativity: Exploring the Power of Divergent Thinking

Unlocking Creativity: Exploring the Power of Divergent Thinking

Dive into the world of divergent thinking and unlock the boundless potential of creativity! Embrace unconventional ideas, explore possibilities, break free from norms. Discover how fostering divergent thinking can fuel innovation and open new horizons.