Sympathy is hearing a story, immediately thinking of something similar that happened within your own life, and then barely listening to the rest of the story being told. You strain not to interject, but you just can't want to share that YES! we are the same and something similar has happened to you too.
You might be sympathetic if you hear a story and say, "I totally get what you're talking about! Something happened to me once and it made me feel the same way. I was walking home and ... etc. ... me, me me ... so yeah, I've totally been there."
Empathy is hearing a story, silencing the monkey mind thoughts that come your way while that story is being told, and potentially feeling the feelings of that storyteller in the moment s/he tells you the story. You are simply open to that person. It is not about finding a similar story in your own experience. It is about honoring the storyteller's experience.
You might be empathetic if you hear a story and say with honesty, "I hear you. I see you. I feel you."
I am often sympathetic. In an attempt to identify with a person who's sharing her story, I steamroll her and put my own experience in place of hers. I think this happens because, at the core of it all, I am craving connection. I want the storyteller to know, ooh ooh, I was paying attention and I totally get it and here's a story that's just like yours. And of course, by doing that, I have completely negated the storyteller's experience. I have not treated her the way I would like to be treated. In my attempt to build connection, I have shut off any real chance of it.
That person's story is a vulnerable gift. She chose to share it. It's not about me.
The same knee-jerk reaction that throws me into sympathy-mode is also the one that sometimes throws me into "not all __" mode when hearing a story. If I hear a story that I can't identify with, a story that appears to paint my sub-culture in a bad light, my monkey mind speaks up and says "Hey! Not all heterosexuals are like that! Not all white people do that! Not all middle-class San Franciscans think that way!" (I even do this with my husband in my own home: "Not all the chores went undone! Not all my actions are petty! I refuse to hear your concerns about my actions because I am not that way all the time!") I don't listen to the story and honor that person's experience because I am too anxious to yell out That's not me! I am not the person you are talking about! Me me me! Who gives a damn if I'm the person that storyteller is talking about?
It's not about me.
My ambition to be more empathetic -- to hear, see, and feel people's stories more completely, without prejudice -- is not one that will come easily. My judgmental habits are deeply ingrained, and it is so easy to fall back into those, particularly with people closest to me. My oldest relationships suffer from the deep grooves of poor habits.
But just because that's the way it always has been, doesn't mean that's the way it should be, or can be. And I get to choose how it will be for the people I interact with: will they get sympathy or empathy?
Because, it's not about me. It's about them.