I admit it — I get a little sloppy when I’m talking about compassion, sometimes conflating it with empathy or even sympathy. They aren’t exactly the same.
Sympathy comes from Middle French sympathie, from Late Latin sympathia, from Ancient Greek συμπάθεια (sumpatheia), from σύν (sun, “with, together”) + πάθος (pathos, “suffering”).
The word empathy is a twentieth-century borrowing of Ancient Greek ἐμπάθεια (empatheia, literally “passion”) + πάθος (pathos, “feeling”)), coined by Edward Bradford Titchener to translate German Einfühlung.
Compassion is derived from the Latin com– “together” + pati “to suffer.”
That’s still a little subtle. Try this. Sympathy is recognizing that another person is suffering. Empathy is being able to feel the same emotions as the person who is suffering — often expressed as “walking in his or her shoes” or “I feel your pain.” Compassion is accompanying a person in his or her suffering — it includes action.
Think of it as head, heart and hands: recognize the suffering, feel the suffering, do something about the suffering.
Here’s a helpful video that clarifies the difference between sympathy and empathy, told from a practical business perspective: