Empathy vs sympathy at work (definitions and differences)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 14 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

When you're working with other people, it's important to make an effort to understand the perspectives of your colleagues and grasp how they might feel at different times. Developing your emotional intelligence, including both empathy and sympathy, is an effective way to improve your teamwork skills. Part of emotional intelligence is understanding the difference between empathy and sympathy, and knowing how to use these qualities to improve your work. In this article, we explore the definitions and differences between empathy vs sympathy and consider how each quality can help you to work effectively with others in any industry.

Empathy vs sympathy

When considering the differences between empathy vs sympathy, it helps to understand what each term means. While sympathy relates to how we care about and express feelings for someone else's misfortune or grief, empathy relates to the feeling of sharing in their pain. Both empathy and sympathy play a valuable role in personal and professional relationships, and it's important to develop your skills in both if you wish to connect with others and work well together. By developing your empathy and sympathy, you can understand other people's points of view and take proactive steps to help others at work.

You can find definitions for the terms below:

What is empathy?

Empathy is a person's ability to share someone's feelings or to understand on a deeply emotional level what someone else is going through. If you're empathetic, you know on a rational level that a person is in pain and requires help and understand how they might feel and why. At work, empathy is a valuable asset that can help you to predict potential conflicts, resolve conflicts and work effectively with colleagues who have a wide range of personalities and backgrounds. You can split empathy into three categories:

  • Emotional empathy: This type of empathy enables individuals to understand a person's feelings and share them themselves.

  • Cognitive empathy: This type of empathy is more cerebral, enabling individuals to understand how and why someone feels rationally.

  • Compassionate empathy: This type of empathy enables individuals to feel as others do when they can see they're in pain.

Related: Practising empathy at work (with definition and FAQs)

What is sympathy?

Sympathy is a person's ability to recognise that somebody is in pain or suffering and to care about this person's pain. You can feel sympathy for someone without feeling empathy for them if you care about the fact that they're hurting but you don't truly understand why or in what way. Sympathy is essential to emotional intelligence because it means that you're capable of showing concern for others and understanding that they're in pain. Two types of sympathy exist:

  • Passive sympathy: This type of sympathy occurs when you care about someone else's feelings but you don't take steps to express this concern.

  • Active sympathy: This type of sympathy occurs when you take active steps to support someone or express your concern. For example, you may send them a message or a card.

Differences between empathy and sympathy

Empathy and sympathy are different because they reflect different levels of understanding of someone else's feelings. It's possible to feel sympathy for someone without really understanding how they're feeling or even why they're upset, They also usually result in different actions. For example, someone who feels empathy likely expresses that empathy in a different way than someone who feels sympathy. Empathy also offers benefits beyond the benefits of sympathy, because alongside improving your relationships with your coworkers, it can also help you to understand how they think and pre-empt conflicts and problems. The primary differences between sympathy and empathy are as follows:

  • How you feel inside: When you express sympathy for someone, you feel fine yourself. If you feel compassion or emotional empathy, seeing someone else in pain can make you feel their pain too.

  • Your level of understanding: When you feel sympathy for someone, you know they're in pain, but you don't necessarily know why or how. When you feel empathy for someone, you understand why they feel the way they do.

  • Your response: You can learn how to respond to people in a more empathetic way even if you aren't naturally empathetic, but in most situations, people who feel empathy vs. sympathy respond very differently. Empathetic people share an individual's pain so they're more likely to express sincere sorrow, whereas sympathetic people often express pity.

  • Your ability to predict issues: Sympathy is a purely reactive feeling brought on by a particular incident or event. Empathetic people can see situations from other people's perspectives and this can help them to plan, organise and manage sensitive issues while considering other people's feelings.

Related: Empathic skills: definition, examples and how to improve

Tips for using empathy at work

Being an empathetic person is sometimes emotionally taxing, but it can help you to work more effectively, especially in an environment where you're working with other people or managing a team. If you're empathetic at work, you can understand how your colleagues think and feel and this can help you to make decisions relating to their work schedule, react appropriately during sensitive conversations and build a close working relationship founded on mutual trust and respect. Below is a list of tips to help you to be more empathetic in the workplace:

Imagine a situation from someone else's perspective

To develop your skills in empathy, you can practice seeing different situations from other people's perspectives. If you're putting together a task force, you could consider how certain colleagues might feel about working on different aspects of the project and whether their relationships with other colleagues might help or hinder the project. When your colleagues come to you with problems, consider how your colleague feels but also how other people involved in the issue might feel as well.

Related: What is teamwork? Including definition and characteristics

Practice active listening

Active listening is when you listen to people attentively and respond thoughtfully. Active listening shows people that you care about what they're saying and value their opinions and experiences. It can also help you to offer more useful advice and responses to your colleague's dilemmas. Alongside developing your empathy skills, active listening can make you a better manager and collaborator in the workplace.

Be open-minded about others

Being empathetic is about understanding that everyone is different, and this might mean having different emotional responses in certain situations. It's important to practice not making snap judgements when you first hear about a situation and take the time to hear different people's perspectives and consider the situation more closely. For example, if there's an argument between two people in your team, listen to both sides before choosing how to resolve the situation in a way that helps both parties reach a solution.

Be proactive

Empathy can help you to react to situations before they arise. Practice using your empathy skills proactively to identify potential conflicts before they arise and find appropriate solutions. For example, if you're managing a project and you know that two of the people working on the project have previously had problems working together, your empathy might help you to understand how they might feel about collaborating on a new project and manage them accordingly.

Tips for using sympathy at work

Sympathy is useful at work because even if you don't understand what someone is going through, perhaps because you've never experienced anything similar or because you don't think you would feel the same way in the same position, you can still express sympathy with your colleagues. For example, if one of your colleagues is experiencing depression or anxiety, sympathy can help you to respond appropriately to them and show them that you care. Below are some tips to help you to express sympathy appropriately in the workplace:

Take time to show support for your colleagues

One way you can practice expressing sympathy at work is by taking the time to be there for your employees when they need you. You can show your support for colleagues by making an effort to spend time with them at lunch or checking in regularly, especially if they're often alone. It's important to give people space when they ask for it, too, especially if lots of people are offering them help and support at once.

Send cards or gifts

If a colleague is having a particularly difficult time, an appropriate way to express your sympathy is by sending a message, a card or a gift. Flowers, chocolates or gift cards are appropriate ways to send your thoughts when somebody is suffering. You can also include a handwritten note expressing your sympathy and letting the person know that they can reach out to you if they need further help or support.

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