Over the years, I have been guilty of incorrectly using the terms sympathy and empathy.
Empathy - The ability to co-experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of another without them being communicated directly by the individual.
Sympathy - The ability to understand and to support the emotional situation or experience of another being with compassion and sensitivity.
To me, the greatest differentiation between the two is that empathy is based upon a bonded relationship, while sympathy can be felt from a distance with people you don't know at all.
Though there are many situations in life that I hope to never personally endure, I have a strong desire to develop the personal connection that will afford me the opportunity to empathize with others. For too much of my life I have been guilty of "mirror imaging" and assuming others think like I do and value the same things. In essence, I saw their experiences through my eyes and drew my own conclusions. How wrong is that?!? I could answer the question..."What would you do if you were in my position?" but might have trouble dealing with "What would you do if you shared my values, experiences and goals in life and was presented with this very situation?"
As with many aspects of my post-adolescent personal development, I can credit my wife with helping me to see the difference. She has taken a deliberate approach to connecting with our son. That is, she communicates with him to such a degree that she not only sees his life through her eyes, but also through the eyes of a seven year old boy who has experienced what he has thus far. Some might argue that a parent's job is to help their child see life through the eyes of a responsible adult, and in time that is every parent's long term objective. However, how likely is it that a seven year old is capable of making such a leap? Why would anyone even try to help them to make such a leap?
At work, I have taken a similar approach to connecting with the team of which I am a new member. In the last two weeks, I have met one-on-one with approximately half of our 150+ member team (and the six 20 minute sessions I will get with each remaining member of the team is the highlight of each day). The immediate goal of each session is to learn more about each other (not what we have done, but who we are), listen to the goals of each and every team member and hear what it is each individual likes and dislikes about the command. The overarching objective is to see the command through the eyes of each person, as well as connect on an individual level so that we can better help each other meet both our individual and collective goals during our limited time together. So far, I can tell you that we have a very diverse team (Note: We measure diversity in terms of thought and not race, gender or ethnicity), where passion, intellect and service is the common thread.
Personal connections are made and strengthened only through effective communication. Without meaningful communication, there is no hope of ever truly being able to empathize with a fellow human being, nor can you expect to truly be of service to them in a time of need. Likewise, to empathize one must be able to see things through the eyes of another. And to see things through the eyes of another, one must show the level of caring by making the time to connect and strengthen/maintain that relationship over time. Those who care enough to truly connect are better parents, leaders, followers, teachers, students, friends, teammates, etc. Those who don't are merely going through the motions, and life is far too short to do anything without thoughtful intention. My goal is to prepare myself to empathize with everyone who truly matters to me as we celebrate life's milestones together and share our collective journey.