What is the difference between sympathy and empathy? What kind of impact do they leave? 3

In 1855, Walt Whitman described his reaction to a person in pain in his poem “Song of Myself.”

“I do not ask a wounded person how he feels, I become the wounded person, my hurt turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.”

Which quality was Whitman illustrating in his poem? Empathy. By becoming “the wounded person,” he vicariously experiences their suffering. 

Customers (both internal and external) will have complaints from time to time. It is a CSR’s job to address those complaints with understanding and care (empathy), but not to transfer the customers’ emotional state onto himself (sympathy).

Customers can be impatient, detail-oriented, and often make demands that are outside of business rules, sometimes employing a variety of threats to get their desired result. It can be a very delicate balancing act to take care of those customers while simultaneously professionally representing your company. Therefore, employees must discuss those challenges and be taught the difference between sympathising and empathising from a customer service standpoint.

(Sympathy) “Wow. I can’t believe that we made this kind of mistake. This should never happen. I’m so sorry that you have to deal with this, I promise we’ll get it fixed right away.”

This sympathetic response feels good to the customer. “This rep is going to bat for me!” But what happens when the final result isn’t what they demanded when the rep is unable to follow through on their promise? This puts the representative in a very awkward position. Sometimes there are business reasons for a situation being the way it is. What happens when a request is denied? How far do they go to fulfil the promise? At what point do they set aside that emotional entanglement and move on to the next case?

(Empathy) “Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention. I understand how frustrating this kind of thing can be. Please let me do what I can to find out what went wrong and determine the next steps toward a resolution.”

Ultimately, a CSR has a job to do, and that job is to care about customers and to find resolutions that work for everyone, which includes representing and protecting the company’s interests. In that role, taking a sympathetic stance is counter-productive and can lead to broken promises as well as anxiety at having to recant the promises, often leading to an escalation of the issue and further incensed customers.

Understanding empathy versus sympathy can be invaluable in work and personal life. Approaching difficult situations with empathy allows one to show caring and to display a higher level of understanding, while at the same time providing freedom and detachment from the hindrance of emotion. Empathy can help you stay patient with everyday frustrations, difficult situations and just another day at the office.