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22nd Nov 2021
Jealousy and Bullying

Empathy or Sympathy

14th Oct 2021

Do you know the difference between Empathy and Sympathy?

Empathy, as Brene Brown describes it, ‘fuels connection’ whereas sympathy, ‘drives disconnection’.

The two are often confused and the terms used incorrectly, but Brene Brown’s description of it sums it up quite accurately. Empathy is about actually getting down into the trenches with the other person. ‘I feel what you are feeling because I am here with you’. Whereas sympathy is more about feeling sad for the person because of the situation they find themselves in. Even in that very description it is evident why empathy is such an effective emotional response and why sympathy can sometimes be felt to be condescending.

The benefits of an empathetic response are clear to see. It improves communication, encourages stronger personal relationships, decreases negativity, and generally leads to both parties feeling happier and more positive. Understanding one another means we feel less alone, less isolated.

How then do we improve our skills in this area?

  1. Use active listening skills. This sounds easier than it is. How often do we listen to another, giving what they are saying, our undivided attention? Often, we find ourselves checking our phones, or thinking of how to reply, or giving our opinion. When can you honestly say you just listened to what someone else was feeling?
  2. Paraphrase back what you think they told you. This doesn’t mean in parrot fashion, but by paraphrasing, ‘it sounds like you are saying you feel overwhelmed because of x,y and z, is that right?’ Immediately it shows the other person you were listening, and that you understand the emotions they are feeling.
  3. Don’t try and fix it. Saying ‘Well it could be worse!’ and citing one of the reasons it could be worse is unhelpful in a moment of crisis. Everything is relative and when we feel low, just knowing someone else understands why we feel that way can mean so much. That person pointing out why we could have it so much worse has a detrimental impact on how we are feeling and may well make them less likely to open up to you in the future.

Suggesting ways to ‘fix it’ can also leave the other person frustrated. Sometimes the best thing we can do is just to let them express their emotions to a willing and empathetic ear.

Empathy is something that may come easier to some of us than to others, but an awareness of what the difference is between showing someone empathy rather than sympathy can be a big step in improving our skills and awareness in this area.

If you need someone to listen to you we have specially trained mentors available. Contact us here for more information on this.


Written by Lucy Howard, BulliesOut Head of Content and Media.


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