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Constantly Confused: Empathy versus Sympathy. The Difference & Why It Matters

Both empathy and sympathy play a role in our personal and professional lives; however, these two concepts are often confused with one another. The key in understanding the difference between these two concepts as actions is particularly relevant for leaders in the modern workplace.

Empathy versus Sympathy

To empathise with someone involves putting yourself in the other person's position and understanding why they may have these feelings and how they are experiencing them. It means connecting with something in oneself that recognises that other person’s feeling. To sympathise with someone involves understanding their situation from your own perspective. It encompasses feeling compassion, sorrow, joy (and more).

Particularly over the last two years of the health pandemic, empathy was expected (maybe even demanded) by employees of their leaders - all the way up to the executive level response to Covid-19. That said, empathy hasn’t always been supported by researchers.

Prominent American psychologist Paul Bloom argued, “Empathy makes the world worse."

Empathy makes the world worse? Huh? How could that be? Yet, that’s exactly what Bloom asserted in “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” which led to an intellectually-charged response from several high-profile thinkers.

The majority position has been highly supportive of empathy, having been widely praised in literature, art, science, philosophy and business. “Friends of empathy”, let’s call them, argue that the faculty is essential to morality and the functioning of a healthy society, the evolutionary basis of why humans are so smart, the most important skill you’ll ever need to succeed in business, the most crucial skill for future leaders, and the most important emotion you need to make a story succeed.

Why Do Empathy and Sympathy Matter

If anything can be said to define the human experience, it’s the desire to matter and be truly seen by others; to not feel alone. 

Stephen Covey, who wrote one of the most influential business books of the 20th century, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said that the deepest hunger of the human heart is to be understood. 

Oprah, one the most admired and powerful voices in popular culture, once shared the common denominator in 35,000 interviews — from Presidents and celebrities, from Beyoncé to housewives and strangers — she noticed they all followed the same basic recurring loop of concern: “They all want to know one thing: was that okay? Did you hear me? Do you see me? Did what I say mean anything to you?”

Yes, both empathy and sympathy matter. But, there is a unique place and time for both. 

In this 3-minute animated video (with more than 18 million YouTube views), best-selling author, researcher and all-around unforgettable speaker, Brené Brown, explains the essential difference between empathy and sympathy, and why empathy (and not sympathy) is more likely to create genuine human connection. 

If you’re anything like me and find yourself automatically going into “problem solve” mode whenever you hear someone has a gripe about life and you just want to tell them what they need to do instead, then watching this video may cause you to pause and reflect.


Video Transcript:

So what is empathy, and why is it very different than sympathy? Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy - it’s very interesting - Teresa Wiseman is a nursing scholar who studied professions, very diverse professions, where empathy is relevant and came up with four qualities of empathy:

  1. perspective taking: the ability to take the perspective of another person or recognise their perspective as their truth;
  2. staying out of judgement: not easy when you enjoy it as much as most of us do; 
  3. recognising emotion in other people; and then 
  4. communicating that.

Empathy is feeling with people. And to me, I always think of empathy as this kind of sacred space when someone is kind of in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom and they say, “I’m stuck. It’s dark. I’m overwhelmed." And then we look and we say, "Hey," and climb down. "I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone.”

Sympathy is, “Ooh, it’s bad, uh-huh? You wanna sandwich?” Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice, because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling. Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with “at least.” And we do it all the time, because you know what, someone just shared something with us that’s incredibly painful, and we’re trying to “silver lining” it. I don’t think that’s a verb, but I’m using it as one. We’re trying to put the silver lining around it. So...

“I had a miscarriage.” - - “Oh, at least you know you can get pregnant.”

“I think my marriage is falling apart.” - - “At least you have a marriage.”

“John’s getting kicked out of school.” - - “At least Sarah is an A student.”

But one of the things we do, sometimes in the face of very difficult conversations, is we try to make things better. If I share something with you that’s very difficult, I’d rather you say, “I don’t even know what to say right now. I’m just so glad you told me.” Because the truth is:  rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.

What are your thoughts on empathy versus sympathy?

You may also enjoy reading The History of Emotional Intelligence.

Note: This article was originally published in May 2019. It was refreshed and republished in June 2022 with up to date information and context.

Theo Winter

Theo Winter

Client Services Manager, Writer & Researcher. Theo is one of the youngest professionals in the world to earn an accreditation in TTI Success Insight's suite of psychometric assessments. For more than a decade, he worked with hundreds of HR, L&D and OD professionals and consultants to improve engagement, performance and emotional intelligence of leaders and their teams. He authored the book "40 Must-Know Business Models for People Leaders."

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