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The difference between sympathy and empathy in leadership - photo of two women - one is clearly upset and the other is comforting her.

When a colleague or employee is going through a tough time, it’s only natural to want to support them.  What you may not realise is that your response can make things better or worse depending on whether that person feels you are giving them sympathy or empathy.  So, what is the difference between sympathy and empathy in leadership?


Sympathy – a definition


Sympathy is the feeling of care and concern for someone who is experiencing difficulties. It is the expression of compassion or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Sympathy often involves feeling sorry for someone and can be communicated through gestures, cards, or other small acts of kindness. It’s a way of showing that you care, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand what the person is going through.

For example, you may say to a colleague who is grieving the loss of a loved one “I’m so sorry for your loss”.  This is showing sympathy.


Empathy – a definition


Empathy, on the other hand, involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and feeling what they are feeling. It’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Empathy is a deeper, more meaningful form of support because it allows you to truly connect with the person and validate their emotions. It’s about listening without judgment, acknowledging their feelings, and offering support in a non-judgmental way.

Using the same example as above, using empathy, you may reply “I can only imagine what you are going through right now.  I’m here if you want to talk about it.”


The neuroscience of empathy


When we empathise with someone, there are several areas of the brain that are activated.  The insula is one, which supports subjective feeling states, and the anterior cingulate cortex which is involved in regulating emotions and social behaviour is another.

We are often caught up in the energy of others and want to mirror their behaviour.   In the 1990s Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team discovered mirror neurons when studying monkeys.  They came to understand that mirror neurons play a role in the ability to understand the actions and intentions of others, and that they can experience empathy.

Originally it was thought that empathy was something you were born with or not.  Research has since found that empathy can be enhanced through training and practice.  Mindfulness, meditation, and empathy training programs have all shown increased activity in the regions of the brain associated with empathy and have improved an individual’s ability to empathise with others.


Why is empathy more effective for leaders when providing support?


While both sympathy and empathy are important, empathy is the more effective way to provide support because it shows that you truly care about the person’s experience and are willing to listen and understand what they are going through. There is no need to solve the situation, when showing empathy, you are demonstrating that you care and are there for them.  By practicing empathy,  you will  build deeper connections with people and  they will feel more supported and understood during challenging times.

In a leadership role, showing empathy to a team member in their time of need will allow them to feel supported and connected to you as their leader.  Opening those lines of communication can ensure misunderstandings are less likely to take place and may prevent substandard work performance.  Employees  who feel supported and connected, tend to feel valued, so they stay in businesses longer and perform at higher levels than those that don’t.




Having recently lost a family member, I have been on the receiving end of a lot of care and concern and I can assure you that there is a big difference between a sympathetic and empathic response.  Hearing words such as, “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling” were so much more powerful than “I understand, I lost my …… too”. 

If you are still a little unsure on the difference between sympathy and empathy, the video below by Brene Brown describes it very well.

If you like to learn more about increasing your ability to express empathy, you may like to request a copy of the brain basics e-book below.


Jan Sky


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