Are empathy and sympathy the same thing?

Victoria Gimeno. Director of Institutional Relations. IE Business School

20 April 2015

Being nice is a personality trait that comes naturally to people, while empathy is a skill that can be learnt, and which permits us to put ourselves in other people’s positions.

The other day, Pablo said to me, “My boss is a really nice guy, whenever he sees me he gives me a slap on the back, telling me what a great job I’m doing, and saying things like ‘hang in there champ!’ or ‘let’s go for it!’ But he doesn’t seem to understand how I feel about my work, that I get no recognition for what I do, that I don’t get invited to meetings, or a pay rise or promoted. But I haven’t the nerve to tell him because he never gives me the opportunity.” 

Pablo’s boss is, as he himself says, a nice guy, able on occasion to show sympathy, but not empathy.

Being nice, or being able to display sympathy, is essentially just a personality trait, it’s part of our character, something that’s simply there; it’s our way of showing affinity toward other people, in the same way we can feel something toward a work of art or any other object. If you feel affection toward somebody, that’s being nice, that’s showing some sympathy, but being able to put yourself in their shoes, feeling and thinking like them, even if you don’t share their views, and without judgment; that’s empathy.

And this lack of empathy shown by Pablo’s boss could eventually lead Pablo, even though he’s the best employee, to leave the company.

As can be seen, being nice and showing empathy are different  things: we can feel one or the other about or toward somebody, both at the same time, or neither.

And while being nice is something we can’t really learn, empathy is an ability that can be acquired and developed.

If Pablo’s boss doesn’t start developing his empathy, he won’t understand what he needs to do to keep Pablo, and he won’t be able to negotiate with him. And if Pablo goes, he won’t understand why, and he won’t forgive him, and he’ll be angry.

Without empathy, we cannot develop the other abilities associated with emotional intelligence that lead to success, for example, we won’t understand or recognize our emotions, we won’t be able to manage them, neither will we find the reasons we need to motivate us, and thus others, and neither will we develop affective relationships with others.

Now that we know empathy can be developed, we can give some advice to Pablo’s boss to work on:

  1. He needs to listen, and not just to words, but to Pablo’s gestures and his body language: what he’s saying and what he’s not saying
  2. He needs to learn to detect emotion in the people around him
  3. He needs to stop judging others
  4. He needs to put himself in Pablo’s shoes, and understand Pablo’s experiences, his beliefs, and his situation
  5. And he needs to learn to take his time when talking to people

Today we’ve looked at Pablo’s boss, another time we’ll focus on Pablo, and ask just why doesn’t he talk to his boss?


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