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Recognising the difference between empathy and sympathy can be an important step for managers in better understanding the needs of employees.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines Empathy as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Experiencing empathy involves imagining yourself in the position of another and showing emotional support. For many people, empathy comes naturally; it is a reaction brought up by a connection of shared experience and understanding. However, many others cannot express empathy as easily or effectively as they wish – it is therefore something that needs to be practised and nurtured continuously. Empathy can be an important tool for listening and communicating with co-workers to better understand their needs and offer support.

By contrast, Sympathy is defined as ‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune’ (OED). Feelings of sympathy arise when you are trying to understand the emotions of another. When thoughts of sympathy arise, they are often connected to a lack of understanding and experience for the situation the other person is going through. This disconnect from the emotions of another person can lead to negative outcomes, as the sympathiser may accidentally offend or fail to validate the emotions of the other. This sense of ‘otherness’ may lead to a sense of frustration on the part of employees who feel they are not being heard properly.

Of course, you cannot possibly understand or relate to the lives and experiences of everyone everywhere.

A recent study found that 95% of HR managers believe improving their emotional intelligence will create a healthier and more productive workplace.[1] This is a positive sign that managers recognise the critical role emotional intelligence and empathy can play in creating a more positive work environment. Emotional intelligence is all about understanding your own feelings and the emotions of those around you.

It is not about “faking” to care.

There are genuine people out there who do struggle to reflect on the needs of others, whether it be from nature or nurture. It is not something to be ashamed of. However, it is important to recognise that empathy and emotional intelligence more broadly are things that anyone can work on.

The Emotional Intelligence Network “Six Seconds” have recently identified the 3 different parts of empathy.[2] Identifying these parts can help you improve your responses to different situations. We have reproduced these 3 parts below, explaining their meanings and how you can implement them in your life and work.

The 3 parts to Empathy

  1. Cognitive Empathy – imagining yourself in the situation of another. This can be done by picturing yourself as the other person, and running through the facts of what they have told you to process the situation. As the saying goes, ‘put yourself into somebody else’s shoes’.
  2. Emotive Empathy – a feeling of togetherness. You have understood and processed the situation and understand that this is something for you to be supportive about, but in a way that does not offend or minimalize the situation. It is always important to validate the feelings of others, and make them feel understood and supported. Again, this is not faking to care, this is finding the part within yourself that does care.
  3. Emphatic Action – this is experiencing the emotion yourself. You are reflecting and bouncing off the emotions of the other person, completely in-tune with the situation.

By improving your emotional intelligence, you are improving your own life and the lives of those around you. It is important to draw empathy into your lived interactions with others. Practising empathy in the workplace can help to foster a more positive work environment for everyone.

Below we have included some further tips to help you improve your emotional intelligence and bring a bit more empathy into your life.

5 tips to improve your Emotional Intelligence:

  • Actively listen to the conversations around you.
    • Note key words, names of people and places
    • Identify the problem
    • Reflect internally on their situation
  • Validate their emotions and experiences.
    • Do not dismiss their problem
    • Do not make the conversation about you and your experiences
  • Ask questions about their situation.
    • This shows you are interested and care about their situation
    • You can gain further information and understanding
    • There may be parts you can offer help with
  • Do not worsen the situation by stating clear disinterest.
    • To show you are engaged in the situation clearly, communicate and ask questions.
    • Otherwise, you are invalidating the feelings and experiences of the person or group.
  • Imagine yourself in their situation.
    • Sometimes the best way to truly empathise with someone is to put yourself in their situation.
    • How would you feel if this was happening to you?
    • How would you react?
    • What would you do to solve the problem?

Understand the feeling that is being communicated to you, and empathise meaningfully.

  1.  Kramer, Bryan, ‘The critical difference between sympathy and empathy’, Forbes Coaches Council,
  2.  Miller, Michael, ‘Empathy vs. Sympathy: what’s the difference’, Six Seconds: The Emotional Intelligence Network,
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