Leadership in this new era of work requires the ability to relate to others in your organization better than ever before. Empathy is often referred to as a necessary “soft skill” for good managers, yet this concept is frequently misunderstood. It’s important to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy to lead well in today’s workplace.

Verywell Mind describes empathy as the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Sympathy, on the other hand, is a feeling of pity or sense of compassion — it’s when you feel badly for someone else who’s going through something hard. Within these definitions are nuances that matter to understanding the difference between empathy and sympathy. Knowing the difference promotes better emotional and relational wellbeing when they’re used in the right situation.

Internalizing vs Externalizing Experiences

When you provide empathy for someone else, you put yourself in their shoes. You can imagine what it would be like to be in their situation and internalize that experience as though it were your own. Sympathy offers understanding to another person but keeps the experience at arm’s length. You feel badly for what the other person is going through but see it through a more distant lens. One communicates “I feel your pain” while the other communicates “I feel sorry for you.” This important difference between empathy and sympathy will help you communicate the right message at the right time.

Others Focus vs Self Focus

Empathy primarily focuses on the experiences of someone else. You will be inclined to do what you can to help the other person in whatever situation they are facing. You are focused on what they need to move forward. Sympathy, on the other hand, will tend to involve you. You may get hooked on your own personal experiences and emotions. In a sense, you wallow with them if you’ve gone through something similar. While this can be helpful at times, it doesn’t often promote healing or recovery. Understanding the difference between empathy and sympathy is crucial if your goal is to lead someone through a difficult time. 

Connection vs Isolation

The language you use with others will indicate how well you understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is offered through inclusive language like, “Many people struggle with this issue, you’re not alone.” This phrase will make others feel connected and normalizes their experience. Sympathy is experienced when you use words like “I’m sorry you feel like that.” While well intended, it can make others feel isolated and pitied instead of understood. They are more likely to feel like they are alone in their pain. Choosing your words wisely is vital to supporting the tone and message you want to communicate. 

Whether you are leading in a hybrid workplace or need new strategies to beat employee burnout, understanding the difference between empathy and sympathy will elevate your leadership skills. While both skills are important, empathy is a tool every leader should use daily to build healthy and productive teams.