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What’s the difference between compassion, empathy, and sympathy?

Compassion, empathy, and sympathy are all about being kind and supportive, not just in therapy or school, but everywhere. They’re crucial for building relationships and making sure everyone feels cared for.

Though often used interchangeably, they have subtle differences:


Understanding and sharing someone else’s feelings, even if we haven’t been in their exact situation. It’s like feeling sad during a movie, even if we haven’t experienced what the characters have. Empathy helps us connect with others and understand how they feel.


Feeling sympathy and concern for someone’s experience, and wanting to help them. It goes beyond empathy because it involves wanting to help make things better for the other person. However, it’s important to keep some emotional distance, especially for those in caring professions, to prevent burnout.


Feeling sorry for someone’s misfortune without necessarily understanding their feelings. It’s more like acknowledging their pain rather than truly feeling it ourselves. Sympathy can be seen as a surface-level response, not deeply understanding what someone else is going through.

Which do you need?

Each approach has its pros and cons. Empathy alone helps people feel heard, but it leave them feeling helpless. Sympathy acknowledges pain, but it can sometimes shift the focus away from the person who needs support. Compassion offers practical help, but some might just want to be listened to without solutions.

A combination of all three is often most helpful, depending on the situation. In the workplace, managers who excel in these areas boost morale and mental well-being, leading to better employee retention and lower stress levels. Feeling understood and included is vital for everyone’s mental health and job performance.

If you want to improve your skills in any of these areas, reach out to me to learn more about our courses, workshop and coaching support. Let’s work together to create a more compassionate and empathetic working environment.

To learn more about working with me, click here to book a call.

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