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Sympathy, Empathy & Compassion at work – what’s the difference?

A look at the differences between sympathy, empathy and compassion, and the effects of displaying each trait in the workplace on both the recipient and provider. Also included is a short collection of resources for those who would like to know more about the need for and benefits of leading with compassion in the workplace for greater positivity and increased productivity.

Let’s begin with the definitions*

Sympathy - sharing another’s emotions, especially of sorrow or anguish; pity; compassion
Empathy – the ability to share another person’s feelings and emotions as if they were your own
Compassion – a feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another, often including the desire to alleviate it

*All taken from Collins English Dictionary

 

What place do sympathy, empathy and compassion have in the workplace?

It may be obvious that each has its place in a workplace setting for no other reason than to show humanity. However, understanding the differences and distinction between them is crucial for picking the right approach to use in an individual situation. For example,

  • A member of your team’s house has been flooded. You may choose to offer sympathy – it’s not a situation you or anyone close to you has personally experienced but you want them to know you have heard what they are experiencing and that you feel sorrow for their distress.
  • You hear a colleague’s partner has been unexpectedly made redundant. Five years ago, your partner lost their job without any warning. You may choose to empathise with them as you clearly remember the situation and repercussions on your own life and feel you can relate to your colleague with a more profound level of understanding.
  • For either of the above examples, you may alternatively choose to offer compassion. Although, you may or may not have experienced the person’s misfortune or state of mind, you are concerned they are suffering and want to show you have a motivation to offer any practical help you and/or the organisation can offer to help alleviate their suffering.

 

How might each be received in the workplace?

As we all feel our life experiences differently, reactions can be varied. Our delivery of sympathy, empathy or compassion will also have an effect on the way they are received. However, as a brief guide:

Sympathy – is not necessarily considered helpful in a workplace setting as, although it can offer an element of comfort, it can also feel distant, patronising and that the recipient is being pitied or even looked down upon. Active rather than passive sympathy (e.g. being sent a message, card or token gift rather than, or to follow up on, a brief expression of sorrow), may have the effect of the recipient feeling more included and heard.

Empathy – considered as a more helpful response than sympathy in a workplace setting. Taking time to display empathy can lead to the recipient feeling the focus is on them as a whole person rather just a cog in the organisational wheel. This can lead to better connections in the workplace with mutual respect and has positive effects on performance both individually and within groups and teams reaching their full potential.

Compassion - leads to feelings of connection whether or not the recipient feels their manager or colleague has experienced a similar suffering or misfortune. The recipient feels they have been listened to and facilitated with a plan for support or some practical steps to assist them find a solution to their problem or circumstance.

A visual illustration of the effect of displaying sympathy, empathy and compassion in the workplace. Sympathy, I feel heard. Empathy, I feel respected. Compassion, I feel understood.

What can be the effect of showing sympathy, empathy and compassion at work

 

Sympathy

On the positive side, expressing sympathy is a way of showing that you care where the cause isn’t something you have experience of, or you perhaps don’t think you would feel or act the same if you were in the person’s position. However, depending on the delivery, regularly expressing sympathy at work can come across as impersonal or superficial and have an impact on trust. For example, if you feel it is necessary to share what you have learned with another/others in the workplace, it can appear that you are gossiping and result in a lack of trust.

Empathy

Is an important skill both in terms of emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness. It is considered to be more supportive and productive in the workplace setting than expressing sympathy and can lead to enhanced relationships, performance and engagement. It is a skill which, although inherent to some, can be learnt and developed through training, coaching and self-development. However, if your work regularly demands that you have empathetic experiences, for example in healthcare and social services, it’s important that boundaries are put in place and communicated to reduce the likelihood of empathy fatigue or burnout.

Compassion

Showing compassion is an uplifting act which involves both feeling and understanding to help and inspire another. As such, it can sustain or even improve your wellbeing and rarely leads to burnout. Beyond finding out what your colleague’s issue is, you offer up possible solutions. For example, it may relate to a lack of knowledge where some training might help; it may be due to a lack of experience where mentoring may work; or it may be a problem with a working relationship where you may be able to have a word with the other party. With its ability to foster both trust and integrity, showing compassion is becoming recognised as a necessary characteristic of successful leaders in the workplace.

Some further reading about compassion at work

We have a short section of resources included in our Wellbeing at Work Resources page for those who would like to explore the topic of compassion at work further:

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