Empathy is Not Sympathy

Monday, February 2 2015

Empathy and sympathy are both equally valuable in a workplace, but they create different results. Their use depends on the situation.  

Empathy is the ability to identify, understand and share what others are feeling. Perhaps you have experienced a similar situation or you have developed the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The latter is very important. You may not have experienced what someone is going through, yet you can imagine the difficulty, the pain, or the frustration. Therefore you are better equipped to work with an individual who is in distress. Star Trek fans will remember the epitome of empathy, Deanna Troi, who had the ability to feel what other’s felt.

Sympathy is a genuine feeling of compassion or concern that does not require the sharing of an emotional state. You feel sorry for someone who is suffering and you may demonstrate your sympathy by providing comfort and assurance.





A deep understanding of the feelings of others – walking in their shoes. A compassionate acknowledgment of another’s difficulties.
Feeling Feeling IN touch with how someone is feeling. Feeling WITH someone; being alongside them.
Example “I can appreciate how you feel. I had the same issues when working on five projects at one time.” “You poor thing! Dealing with a several projects at the same time can be overwhelming.”
Coaching Guide and support the person to a good solution.

Ask questions to help the person discover a way to deal with the situation.

Provide compassion and assurance.

Offer an environment where someone is free to talk and share. They may need the comfort.

Outcome The person works through their concerns or issues. The person feels cared for and supported.


Sympathy is used when there is concern for the individual’s wellbeing. People may need compassion and caring as they work through their issues.

Empathy is an important attribute of a good leader. Listening with empathy leads to understanding about how others are feeling. It provides a deeper emotional experience for both parties. It goes beyond active listening. When you truly understand how people feel then solutions can be found. Empathy enables leaders to be clear about the emotional issues involved, and enables greater openness for support. When you show empathy you can feel what another feels; but, it does not mean that you have to agree with the conclusion that someone may have reached.

Learn when to use empathy and sympathy. It is a key leadership skill.