Sympathy vs. Empathy: Key Differences and How To Use Them at Work

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated March 23, 2022 | Published May 11, 2021

Updated March 23, 2022

Published May 11, 2021

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.

Empathy and sympathy are two traits that can help you relate to others and understand other perspectives in the workplace. While these two terms are often used interchangeably, there are key differences. Whereas sympathy is the ability to feel caring and supportive of another person's situation, empathy is the ability to recognize and share in another's emotions.

In this article, we'll explore what empathy and sympathy are, the importance of both in the workplace and how you can be empathetic and sympathetic at work.

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What is sympathy?

Sympathy is when a person feels compassion for or cares about another person's pain, misfortune, trouble or grief, but does so from the outside. It can also refer to a person's feelings of support for an individual or situation. Sympathy is a key part of emotional intelligence.

With sympathy, you can appreciate what another person is going through, but unlike with empathy, you do so from your own perspective. In other words, you feel "for" someone, but not "with" them.

There are two types of sympathy: passive sympathy and active sympathy, with the latter involving the impulse to help in some way. 

For example, a colleague who recently lost their parent to cancer is participating in a walkathon over the weekend. To show your support, you post about the event on social media to raise awareness and make a per-mile pledge. You are actively showing your support without internalizing it.

Related: What Is Emotional Intelligence? Definition, Key Elements and Examples

What is empathy?

Empathy describes a person's ability to emotionally understand what someone else is going through. An empathetic person can see things from another person's point of view. Empathy is a valuable asset and soft skill for many people to have and as with sympathy, is considered an important component of emotional intelligence, or EQ. When a person is being empathetic, they are working to understand how others feel in a given circumstance and recognizing that each person deals with situations differently.

There are three primary types of empathy that are relevant in the workplace. These include:

  • Emotional empathy: This type of empathy is when a person is able to share the feelings of another individual, allowing them to understand that person in a more in-depth way. Sometimes referred to as affective empathy, emotional empathy allows you to create genuine rapport with others.

  • Cognitive empathy: This type of empathy refers to a person's ability to understand how another person thinks or feels. Unlike emotional empathy, cognitive empathy does not require emotional involvement but rather focuses on why a person may think or feel a certain way.

  • Compassionate empathy: This type of empathy is when an individual shares the emotional pain of another person.

Related: Empathic Listening: Definition, Examples and Tips

How are sympathy and empathy different?

The main difference between sympathy and empathy is how the two are expressed. Whereas empathy involves understanding and experiencing another person's emotions or situation from their perspective (e.g., "I share your reservations about the new policy."), sympathy is more a recognition of what another person is going through.

Related: 5 Characteristics of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

Empathy and sympathy in the workplace 

Demonstrating empathy and sympathy in the workplace can help you build and enrich work relationships and strengthen your team and culture.

Sympathy at work

Expressing sympathy can have a positive effect on your work relationships, especially when a coworker might be experiencing a tough time. It allows you to show you value what the other person is feeling and support them. By expressing sympathy you can help create a more open and communicative environment where employees feel safe and heard.

Empathy at work

Because empathy involves feeling the emotions of another person, it can be taxing on a person's emotional state. However, empathy in the workplace can connect individuals and help them feel united as a team.

Both empathy and sympathy are important as they foster an encouraging environment in the workplace that can ultimately lead to more innovative and intuitive solutions to issues that arise. They can also help employees build stronger relationships among themselves and with clients, creating a more positive and productive work environment.

Related: What is an Empathetic Leader? (Definition, Benefits and Tips To Become One)

Ways to express sympathy at work

Here are a few ways to express sympathy at work:

Be there for others: One way to show sympathy at work when a person is struggling or experiencing a challenging situation is to simply be present when needed. Sharing the same space with a person when they are having a hard time shows them that they are not alone and that others care about them.

Write a note or send a card: If an employee is having a difficult time or has experienced a particular hardship, you can show your sympathy by writing them a note or sending a card. Even if the card is short and simple, it still expresses that you are thinking of the person and that you care about them and their situation.

Read more: 50 Condolence Messages to Send a Coworker

Ways to express empathy at work 

The following are ways you can express empathy in the workplace:

Imagine how you might feel: In order to practice empathy, you must be able to feel what another person is feeling. One way to do this is to imagine how you would feel if you were experiencing the same situation. This can help you know what type of positive support would be the most beneficial to them.

Practice active listening: Active listening is when you can focus on the speaker, understand what they are saying and comprehend and respond to that information in a respectful and thoughtful manner. This type of listening shows the speaker that you care about what they’re saying and that you’re not only listening but hearing their words.

Examples of active listening skills you can practice include paraphrasing, asking open-ended questions and using verbal affirmations to show the speaker you’re engaged in the conversation.

Avoid making snap judgments:: Avoid making quick judgments or assumptions about a situation and instead focus on understanding how the other person is feeling and what you can do to build rapport and show your support. To express empathy, you will want to respond instead of react to a situation.

  • Example: A particularly productive team member has been consistently late to work for over a week, missing two deadlines in the process. The team leader is concerned. However, rather than assume that the team member is all of a sudden irresponsible, the team leader decides to reach out to them instead to understand the cause, offering to help them.

Take action: When it comes to demonstrating empathy at work, there is no one right way to do so. Rather, focus on understanding what the other person wants and needs in a particular situation and take action to help them achieve those wants or needs.

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