Empathy and sympathy are often used synonymously, however, there’s a big difference between them. Confusing the two could create missed opportunities to support others and build strong relationships. 

To understand the difference, we need to master each individually.  

What is sympathy? 

Sympathy is an expression of understanding and concern for someone who is experiencing something difficult or painful. Typically, this understanding is from your own perspective, not theirs. When we show sympathy we convey pity, commiseration, or feelings of sorrow for the person experiencing the misfortune. 

A sympathetic response is one formed from a lack of understanding of the other person’s perspective. Most of the time it’s a quick response to the information we’ve been given – we feel put on the spot, panic under pressure, and say things without too much thought. 

These responses often include phrases like: 

“We’ve all been there…” 

“At least…” 

“I remember the feeling well, let me give you some advice…” 

For a time, sympathy can feel nice, a little reassuring you’re not alone with the experience, however, sympathy eventually drives disconnection with people feeling unsupported. This disconnection comes from not being listened to and a lack of real understanding from their perspective. 

Empathy takes a little more work. 

What is empathy? 

Empathy is the ability to understand and share a person’s feelings. It’s not limited to your own experiences. An empathic person can feel someone else’s emotions regardless of their own experiences. 

An empathic response involves

  • being brave enough to sit and listen,
  • refrain from responding quickly,
  • remove any judgement,
  • and stop yourself from offering advice.

It’s making the vulnerable choice to connect with the feeling that the other person has shared and understand their perspective, emotions and reality.

Empathic responses might not always feel easy, but they can be done with a little practice. 

Empathy is all about building a connection and the best way to connect is not by talking but by listening. 

There are 4 components of empathy:  

  • Perspective taking

Understanding another’s perspective involves recognising it as truth. Putting your own opinions and emotions to one side and seeing the world through the eyes of the other. 

  • Removing judgement

When we judge someone’s situation, we discount their experience. To truly take on the perspective of another, we need to remove our own biases, assumptions and opinions. By removing judgement we remain open to their feelings and refrain from making comments that invalidate their experience.  

  • Communicating your understanding

It’s important to communicate that you comprehend their perspective and validate the person’s feelings and experience. By validating these feelings, you demonstrate that you acknowledge and understand them.  

  • Recognising emotions

Understanding someone else’s emotions requires you to recognise and be aware of your own. By recognising them you can put them to one side so that you can focus on the person experiencing difficulty or pain. 

True empathy is not saying “I know how you feel” it’s saying, “I want to know how you feel”. 

Empathy is a skill we can all learn and practice. 


💗Be there,  

👐See it through their eyes,  

🫶Build a connection. 


The Motivation Agency has been supporting businesses in their employee engagement journey since 2006. Our online course Em-Path Online has been designed by experts in workplace relationships and learning, in collaboration with leaders, managers and frontline colleagues across a variety of industries.

Amber Orchard-Webb

Amber Orchard-Webb

Learning Specialist and e-Learning Developer at The Motivation Agency

Inspired by an early career as Skills and Development Advisor for Costa Coffee, I moved agency side to the role of Learning Specialist. I bring positivity, passion and a fresh perspective, to deliver the very best learning solutions to our clients.