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Empathy Versus Sympathy – The Coaching Room

This article was based on the RSA video, “Brené Brown on Empathy”:


Brené Brown on Empathy


Empathy Feels Connection

Brené Brown begins her talk by asking how empathy differs from sympathy.  The answer is that empathy feels connection.


Empathy vs Sympathy.png


There are four qualities of empathy:

  1. Ability to take the perspective of another person
  2. Staying out of judgment
  3. Recognising emotion in other people
  4. Being able to communicate what you feel

Brown gives the example of someone who has fallen into a hole to describe the difference between empathy and sympathy.  When you have empathy for that person, you climb down and say you know what it’s like. If you are merely showing sympathy, you look into the hole and acknowledge that the situation is bad, often beginning with the phrase, “at least.”

When we are faced with difficult conversations, we show sympathy out of our desire to fix things.   It would be better to show empathy and simply acknowledge the person’s feelings.


Connection Makes Things Better

Sympathy drives disconnection because rarely can a response make something better. Empathy is a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with someone you have to connect with something in yourself that understands the situation.  This understanding brings with it a connection, and that is what makes things better.


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