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Understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy

January 12, 2022 - 15 min read

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Empathy vs sympathy: key characteristics

What's the difference between empathy vs. sympathy?

4 ways to practice empathy

What can seem like empathy but isn’t?

Compassion vs. Empathy

Empathy and sympathy are two terms that are often used interchangeably. But only one of them allows people to connect deeper than surface level.

So what is the difference between empathy and sympathy? And which should you practice?

Let’s explore how empathy and sympathy differ and why one of them is a better tool to help you connect with others at work and in life.

Empathy vs sympathy: key characteristics 

Understanding the differences between empathy and sympathy can help you choose the most appropriate one given your circumstances. While empathy supports a deeper connection, there are times when a sympathetic response is more fitting.

To clarify, here is an overview empathy and sympathy and some examples of each.

What is empathy? 

  • Feeling what someone else feels
  • Actively listening to what they have to say
  • Not judging
  • Being aware of nuances and non-verbal cues
  • Discovering their perspective
  • Acknowledging everyone's feelings

Empathy is the ability to understand and share a person’s feelings. If you’re an empathetic person, you can listen to what someone else has to say without judgment.

This ability to connect is not limited by your own experiences. An empathetic person can feel someone else’s emotions, regardless of their personal experiences.

You’re able to discover their perspective with awareness of non-verbal cues. You’re also able to simply listen without feeling forced to provide unwanted advice.

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Plus, you can acknowledge everyone’s feelings in a given situation. This is particularly helpful in leadership positions. Looking at the bigger picture can help make more informed decisions.

Practicing empathy, instead of sympathy only, can help you get the emotional clarity you need to build upon important relationships. It can let you see another point of view.

Having empathy can also help you to improve your communication skills. That’s because you’re able to listen fully to others and understand their perspectives.

In fact, research shows that empathy can even help sustain cooperation during social dilemmas. Other studies have found that in a service setting, empathy can reduce discrimination and unethical behavior.

This is important to foster a happier, healthier workplace and build a sense of belonging.

What is sympathy?

  • Having thoughts about what someone feels
  • When in conversation, giving unasked advice
  • Passing judgment
  • Only noticing the surface level issue
  • Understanding only from your perspective
  • Ignoring or suppressing your own emotions

Unlike empathy, practicing sympathy doesn’t mean you feel what someone else feels. Instead, you feel pity or sorry for someone else’s feelings.

You feel bad for someone, but you don’t understand how they feel.

A sympathetic approach only provides a surface-level understanding of someone else’s situation. This understanding is typically from your perspective, not theirs.

Sympathy can also lead someone to give unsolicited advice to help the other person deal with their emotions.

When offering this advice, it's common for sympathetic people to pass judgment. Unlike empathy, it’s still possible to pass judgment with sympathy.

What's the difference between empathy vs. sympathy? 

Both empathy and sympathy share the suffix pathy. This suffix comes from the Greek word pathos.

Pathos can mean several things. It can mean “emotion” or “feelings.” But it can also mean “suffering.”

This means that both empathy and sympathy deal with emotions. However, there’s one big difference between empathy and sympathy.

Empathy vs sympathy examples

Let’s look at empathy vs sympathy in similar situations.

First, imagine someone in your place of work was just reprimanded. As a result, they feel sad, nervous, and disappointed in themselves.

If you were to express sympathy, you could tell them that you’re sorry that they’re going through this. However, this wouldn’t stop you from feeling judgment towards their situation.

Perhaps you judge them for having been reprimanded. Some people might even say, “At least you still have your job!”

On the other hand, you wouldn’t say this if you were an empath. With empathy, you feel the sadness, nervousness, and disappointment the other person feels. You care about their well-being.

You can let them know they’re not alone. You don’t need to find a solution to their problem. Instead, you can say something like:

“I’m really sorry. I’m so glad you told me. I’m here for you.”

You resist the urge to try to make it go away.

Empathy is about connecting with the other person instead of trying to find an appropriate response.

Here’s another example. If someone at work tells you they’re having marriage problems, sympathy could look like this:

“Oh, that sucks. Have you tried marriage counseling?”

On the other hand, practicing empathy means fully listening to the other person. If this is someone you're comfortable with, you can ask them if they want to talk about it with you.

There’s no need to try to fix the issue for them. Instead, offer a moment of connection.

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Which is better: sympathy or empathy? 

Sympathy doesn’t help you build deep connections with other people. This is because sympathy only offers surface-level understanding. It doesn’t allow you to see from someone else’s perspective.

On the other hand, empathy lets you walk in someone else’s shoes. As a result, you can better provide what they really need.

In the workplace, empathy can help you connect with your peers and get on the same level as them. Doing so can help you build a high-performance team.

4 ways to practice empathy

Practicing empathy, especially at work, is no easy feat.

According to Businessolver’s 2021 Empathy Study, 70% of CEOs say they struggle to demonstrate empathy at work consistently.

68% of them also believe they'll be less respected if they show empathy in the workplace.

However, only 25% of employees say that empathy in their organizations is sufficient.

Empathy is becoming a growing priority for employees as more and more Gen Z employees join the workforce. They’re the fastest-growing group in the workforce right now. 

90% of Gen Z employees say that they’re more likely to stay at their jobs if their employer is empathetic.

If you have a leadership position in your organization, practicing empathy and making it a priority is key to building a more resilient workforce.

Here are four ways you can do so:

1. Listen actively instead of focusing on what to say next

Even when listening to someone else, people are often focused on their own thoughts.

It’s easy to think about what to say next instead of focusing on what the other person is saying. This gets in the way of fully and actively listening to the other person. It also makes it difficult to understand the emotions of another person.

Failure to listen will make it difficult to empathize. 

Instead of focusing on your response, pay close attention to what someone is telling you. Listen attentively, not just for their words, but for other non-verbal cues, too.

Watch their body language and tone of voice to understand how they feel. You can easily miss these signals when you’re focused on your own response.

When the other person is finished speaking, take a moment to process the information. Only once you’ve processed all nuances of the conversation should you focus on what you want to say.

If you have a position of leadership, encourage your team to practice active listening.

2. Repeat in your own words

One of the first things you can say after listening to someone is to repeat what they've said but in your own words.

You can phrase this as something that you’ve heard.

Here’s an example:

“What I’m hearing is that you don’t feel valued in the team when Jeremy and Sophia speak over you. Is this right?”

When you present something as what you’ve heard, it places the burden on you, not on the other person. If you heard or understood something wrong, they can correct you.

3. Prioritize emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is an important soft skill to practice in your workplace if you want to improve empathy.

People who have high emotional intelligence tend to be:

In the workplace, it's crucial to prioritize emotional intelligence in your team. It facilitates strong communicators, collaborators, and leaders.

4. Understand what the other person needs

Everyone is wired differently. We all have different needs.

It’s easy to imagine what you'd need if you were in the same situation as someone else. But what you need isn’t necessarily the same as what they need.

Resist the urge to automatically leap to conclusions about what someone needs when they tell you what they’re going through.

Instead, use your listening skills to figure out what they need. If you’re not sure, ask. It’s better to ask someone what they need than to assume and provide the wrong kind of support.

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What can seem like empathy but isn’t? 

Some scenarios can feel like empathy but aren’t really. Here are some examples to look for:

1. Someone in grief

Supporting someone who is grieving is a great example of what could be empathy, but it isn’t always.

When you go see someone in grief and tell them how sorry you are, it can feel like you’re empathetic to their situation. After all, you know it must be terrible to live a loss like that.

Maybe you even take the time to bring them flowers or a card.

However, this is an example of sympathy. That’s why most cards designed for people in grief say “Our Sympathies” on them. They’re also called sympathy cards for a reason. 

Showing empathy requires a lot more than offering your condolences. It takes effort to imagine yourself in the grieving person’s shoes.

It also takes effort to be there for them and offer them the support they need.

2. A coworker struggling to keep up

A coworker comes to you to complain about struggling to focus and catch up with all their tasks.

As a result, you bombard them with your best time-saving techniques to help them get everything done. You feel this is empathetic because you are taking time out of your day to help them through something.

But the next day, you find that this coworker comes to you to complain again. Why is that? Didn’t you already help them?

This can happen because the first scenario didn’t show true empathy. While you did help them, you didn’t take the time to connect with how they felt.

When you take the time to do so, you realize that more is going on than you previously thought. They’re having issues at home, which are getting in the way of their focus.

By listening fully to what they have to say, you help them feel heard and supported. As a result, this coworker is now better able to focus afterward.

3. A friend who needs emotional support

A friend starts to complain about being tired because they struggle to fall asleep at night.

You quickly interrupt them to say, “Oh, I’ve been through that before. I know that’s really hard. What helped me was to take melatonin every night. It works like magic.”

Although it feels like you’re empathizing with them, this isn’t really the case. Instead of focusing on the other person, you redirected the conversation to be about you.

Empathy instead requires you to put your own feelings aside and focus on the other person.

Only by listening will you find out what the other person is looking for.

Compassion vs. empathy 

Compassion and empathy are often used interchangeably. Though there's a common thread between them, the two concepts are distinctly different.

Both compassion end empathy are fueled by an understanding of another human's emotions. They both come with a desire and ability to connect with someone else and feel their pain.

Compassion goes a step further as an individual recognizes the pain in another and is motivated to help them.

That said, compassion does require a degree of separation. To effectively help someone else, you should be able to manage those empathetic feelings so that they don’t overwhelm you. With these feelings managed, a person has the capacity to find an appropriate response and see it through.

Empathy vs sympathy: know the difference 

Sympathy is an expected sentiment. But empathy goes beyond what people expect.

It helps people connect, both at work and in life.

If you want to learn how to practice empathy, you can try personal coaching through BetterUp.

Schedule a demo today to see how BetterUp can help you develop emotional intelligence and reach your career potential. 

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Published January 12, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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