On Empathy Day, it seems like a good time to clarify the difference between sympathy and empathy, which many people seem to mistakenly regard as the same thing.
While the difference can sometimes be quite subtle, there is a clear difference which every good counsellor learns at a very early stage of their training. Put in simple terms, sympathy is putting yourself in the same place as the person you need to help, which means you are then not in the right place to give the help they need. Sometimes people will employ well used platitudes, well meaning, but usually making the helper feel better rather than the person that needs help.
Empathy is more about listening, gently talking things through, asking the right questions so that you fully understand the problem and can then discuss options and suggestions, looking at likely outcomes to help the person to reach their own resolution, which is much more effective that just telling them what you think they should do.
I remember in my own early training, the difference was quickly and simply explained with a series of cartoon drawings. The first showed a person sitting in a hole, obviously distressed. The next image was titled ‘sympathy’ and showed the helper sitting in the gutter with them, putting themselves in the same position. The next drawing titled ’empathy’ showed the helper offering a hand to help the person up out of the hole. Such a simple drawing yet explaining the difference perfectly.
It can also be explained as simply walking alongside someone, not in front, leading them and not behind, pushing them, but just being with them, side by side, supporting them to find their own direction without criticism, judgement or blame.