I’ve always been careful in which I use so that my words don’t lose an ounce of their meaning. Some people say things like “It’s all semantics!” in a way that makes it seem like what you’re talking about or discussing doesn’t really make much difference. However, this is not the case with regards to the semantic difference between sympathy and empathy. To put it in layman’s terms, sympathy is “to feel FOR” and empathy is “to feel WITH”. If a loved one passes away, for someone to say that they “empathize” with you, then that means they have experienced the same feelings as you have, or rather, they have lost a loved one before too. They must truly understand what you’re going through, not just feel for you. Now, I’m not saying that sympathy is inadequate. I’m simply saying that they contain a specific difference and that we should strive towards empathy with all. While most everyone is able to sympathize with (feel for) others, not everyone is able to empathize (feel with) others depending on their past experiences. But how, then, is it possible make it our goal to empathize with someone if we know we’ve not undergone the same experiences as they have? The answer is in one word, “understanding”.
In the mega article, “Communication Essentials”, we were told about the “5 Pillars of Communication,” one of which was “empathy”. Another good principle of relationships is similar, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Too often we want to get our point of view across to the other person and make sure they understand us before we actually understand them. We do this with any topic in which we hold strong beliefs or opinions about. Often times, we seek to administer the cure to someone’s problem (such as encouraging or sage words) before understanding the disease, the root of it all. That is not to say that we are all doctors or have some kind of miraculous cure to offer every problem but we do have understanding to give, if we take the time to arrive there.
I once had a roommate who I went to class with every day. He was quiet, reserved, artistic, and non-confrontational. I tended to be more talkative, analytical, and argumentative. Over time, his behavior befuddled me more and more. Although in many ways he was like a younger brother, I often felt like a Martian observing the ways of someone from another galaxy. We were worlds apart. Then, one day, over lunch, I decided to sit down with him and just started asking him questions. They were deep questions about life and meaning, his dreams and his hopes. After that day, we had a bond that we didn’t have before, not because I had new information about him but because I feel that in all of my question-asking he could see that I cared about him as a person. I understood him…mostly because I took the time to. This didn’t come at all naturally to me, I had to make an intentional choice, but I will always remember it as the moment where I had had enough of being so lost in my interactions with him and decided to do something about it.
If you know you can only “sympathize” with someone and feel you can’t feel with them, just sit down and ask questions, seek to understand where they are coming from and how they’ve arrived where they are. Not only will you find your relationships deepened and enriched, you’ll find you learn a few new things about your friends and family along the way.