Have you ever wondered what Empathy really is? Is there any difference between empathy and sympathy? How can you improve your Communication Skills by being empathetic? Let’s find out the answers to these questions and more through today’s article. Let’s start with a story…

Aastha’s Story

Aastha was happily going home from work one Saturday evening. She had just received news of a bonus coming her way and was busy fantasizing what she was going to do with this money.

She was so lost in her thoughts; that while crossing the road, she did not see a car that was fast approaching her. And unfortunately, met with an accident that landed her in hospital with a dislocated knee and the need for immediate surgery.

Now Aastha had migrated to Mumbai recently from her native place. She therefore did not have any family or friends by her side in the hospital. This made her feel even more scared, and she trembled at the thought of her upcoming surgery.

A sad girl on the hospital bed

The nurses attending to her felt bad for her. They gave her verbal reassurances and told her that everything would be alright. However, one of the nurses called Latika, was different. She would spend as much time with Aastha as possible and look into every need of hers. Latika’s words were so soothing and the care she took was unparalleled.

She even promised Aastha that she would be with her throughout the surgery and lived up to every word! In fact, she did not leave her side till her family finally arrived post the surgery. After the surgery also, Latika made it a point to be around and help in every little way that she could. She consistently checked in on Aastha’s meals, took regular mental and physical health checks and even stood beside her during her physiotherapy sessions.

Aastha and her family were deeply touched and grateful for Latika’s support and kindness.

The Difference…

So, what do you think, was there a difference in the service offered by Latika and the other nurses? And what do you think could be the cause of this difference?

Well, there was definitely a clear distinction in the service offered by the nurses and Latika. While they both looked into Aastha’s needs, the attitude they carried towards her was very different. And that is what really made the difference.

While the nurses felt sad towards Aastha’s situation, they only provided her with verbal reassurances. They did not go out of their way to help her the way Latika did. Yes, Latika also felt bad for her, but rather than stopping at that, she went one step ahead, to what we call ‘Empathy.’

What is Empathy?

Empathy, as we have commonly heard, is about putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Now what does this really mean? It’s about getting into the ‘character’ of the other and looking at the situation from their perspective. And that’s exactly what Latika did. She put herself in Aastha’s situation, which was about having met with an accident and awaiting a surgery. It was about feeling the anxiety she felt, the helplessness she felt and the loneliness she felt due to the absence of known people around her. Simply put, empathy is about relating to the other person and then behaving with them based on the newly found comfort you will feel towards them!

And what difference does it make?

It completely changes your behaviour towards the person. You will realise you feel more compassionate towards them, which changes the way you communicate with them. Your body language, tone and words become softer. You tend to have more patience with them and go out of your way to make them feel comfortable. In short, it transforms your communication and behaviour and takes the service you offer them to a whole other level!

Sympathy vs Empathy

And there comes the age-old question. What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy. Is sympathy not enough?

Let me explain the 3 levels of compassion.

Difference between empathy, sympathy and apathy

  • Apathetic – An apathetic person displays little to no emotions towards a particular person or situation. This could be because they have never had or heard of a similar situation and hence cannot even imagine it (I know, a little unimaginary, specially the imagination part!). It could also be because of certain past life experiences where showing emotions might have been looked down upon by others. They therefore took a call that they would not reveal their emotions or connect with others on an emotional level.
  • Sympathetic – Now this person gets emotionally moved by the other person’s situation, just like our nurses did. In fact, they get so lost in the emotion that they are actually unable to go beyond it and take action. And are left with just reassurances that they can offer the other.
  • Empathetic – An empathetic person, on the other hand; temporarily steps into the other person’s situation and feels their pain. And then goes beyond it to actually take steps to help them. They are therefore able to convert the intense emotion they feel into deep compassion, which drives them to action, just like Latika did.

Why is it Essential to Develop Empathy?

  • Improves Service

People who display empathy connect beautifully with others. This helps them in managing their behaviour and takes their communication to a whole new level! And those who constantly display such empathetic behavior towards others get rewarded with a ‘helping’ personality. A personality that makes them strongly relate, care and feel a sense of fulfillment with the deep connections they form around them. In short, it helps them create great interpersonal bonds with their families, friends, colleagues, customers, etc., making them fantastic service providers!

  • Emotional Regulation

emotional regulation

Empathy is about managing your emotions. While sympathy stops at feeling them, empathy goes a step ahead by regulating them and giving you the opportunity to make use of them. Empathizing with others therefore teaches you how to manage your own emotions. It enables you to handle your feelings even under extreme stress without becoming overwhelmed.

  • Better Decision Making

Some people are born with the innate quality of empathy. While others learn to develop empathetic skills through certain life experiences. When a person understands another’s viewpoint, their thinking capacity increases beyond their own limited perspective. This gives them a more holistic view of situations, helping them take better decisions.

  • Strengthens Team Bond

People holding hands together

The chances of conflict in a team are also greatly reduced when empathy is practised. One learns to be more open by understanding where the other person is coming from before trying to force their own ideas. This allows for more open communication in teams, an acceptance of diversity and stronger team bonds.

How do you Develop Empathy?

Inculcating Empathy may seem difficult for some at first, as it requires us to first learn emotional regulation. However, there’s nothing that practice cannot perfect!

Here are a few tips you could use to improve your Empathy skills:

  • Relate: Always try to understand the other person’s situation so that you can relate to them.

When we have been through a similar situation or have closely experienced someone else in a similar situation, it becomes easier to relate. For instance, in our story, it was easy for Latika to relate to Aastha as her own younger sister had met with an accident and was faced with a similar situation a while ago. Latika, was therefore, well aware of the feelings a person may go through when dealing with such a situation.

  • Listen: Drop your biases while you listen to them or you may miss out on some important information!

These could be biases that crop up because you do not know their entire story and may assume their intentions. They could also be due to your own past story and how things went for you in that situation. Either way, ensure that you stay well away from them.

  • Question: Help them go deeper into their story till you understand what they are experiencing and why they are experiencing it in the way they are
Question Marks

Vector bubbles with question mark. Question icons isolated on white.

After questioning, listen to them intently. Again, beware of your biases or urge to complete their story your way! Listen patiently and with interest.

Once you ‘get’ them it will change the way you feel about them and the way you communicate with them. And that’s when you will be well on your way to having great interpersonal communication and strong bonds!

Empathy Pitfalls

There are two important things you need to keep in mind while displaying empathy towards others. The first and foremost, is to avoid stereotyping people and making assumptions about any situation or person. Have an open mind and heart towards everything.

The other, is to learn to detach oneself from intense emotions. Understanding the other’s situation can trigger off emotions within us that can get difficult to manage. And to keep us well on the empathy track rather than getting stuck on sympathy, it’s important that we are able to manage them.



“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” –Brene Brown


So, let’s create a better world filled with kindness, compassion and empathy! You with me?




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