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Many people wonder what the real difference is between empathy and sympathy. The dictionary definitions are as follows:

  • Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

  • Sympathy: feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune.

These definitions give a good starting point, but not much detail. And the biggest problem is, they don't explain why the difference between these two concepts is important.

The Social Definitions

These definitions are just the surface of what empathy and sympathy really mean. And they don't give any hints on how or when to use them. Dr. Brene Brown, a researcher of courage, vulnerability, and other emotional human experiences, provides a much more comprehensive view of what empathy and sympathy really mean:

Dr. Brown's definitions not only give us insight into what empathy and sympathy look like, but also provides guidelines for how to practice empathy in our daily lives.

Practicing empathy

Let's practice identifying empathetic responses vs. sympathetic responses. Choose which of the below responses reflects empathy.


Your friend Kim has started crying. She lost her job a month ago, and now her house has flooded from the recent rain. She can't afford to fix the damages, and is having to consider borrowing the money from her parents, who often criticize her choices.

When to Use Empathy vs. Sympathy

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Sometimes when practicing empathy, it's good to let the other person know that they are not alone, and that you have been in a similarly difficult place before. Like Dr. Brown said, sometimes a person needs to hear "I know what it's like down here." However, sharing intimate details of your background may not be appropriate in all settings.

Appropriate sympathy vs. bad empathy

If your friend Taylor is suffering from depression, it would be okay to say to them "when my depression was at its worst, I felt like no one was there to listen. I just want you to know I'm here to listen to anything you need to say."

But, that would not be an appropriate response from an HR representative listening to Taylor at work. In some cases, keeping sympathetic emotional distance is more useful, as long as you still practice empathetic listening.

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Practicing sympathy and empathy responsibly

Listen to the responses below, and decide what you think would be an appropriate response in a professional setting.

Response 1 Response 2


Which response do you think is better for a professional environment?

Take Action

The concepts of empathy and sympathy are so much more than their simple definitions, and require time and practice to understand fully.

The four keys to empathy are:

  • Perspective taking

  • Staying out of judgement

  • Recognizing and respecting the emotions of others

  • Communicating that recognition

Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

And while there are some times in which sympathy is more appropriate, empathy is a much more valuable skill. Even in settings where emotional distance is called for, avoid adding silver linings, giving unwelcome advice, and minimizing their situation with phrases like 'at least.'

Practicing these skills can develop richer personal bonds, deeper understanding, and more meaningful emotional growth between you and the people around you.


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