Empathy vs. Sympathy

A colleague of mine approached me, absolutely exasperated by a second-grade student who she described as angry and “refusing to do anything.” I walked with her to the classroom as she told me about the choices she gave him (sit at your desk or on the rug, do the odds or the evens), and they were all perfectly fine modifications. She had said to him, “I’m sorry you’re angry, but you have to do your work.” She had offered sympathy, maybe, but he needed more. As she was talking, her voice was stern, and I could tell she was fed up. We arrived at the door to the classroom. The student was in the hallway with his paraprofessional, arms crossed, face in a deep frown.

I got down on his level, asked him for eye contact (I knew this student could do this and needed it to focus) and said, “you were working on math, but it’s really hard. That makes you feel frustrated and angry.” He nodded, softened. I continued, “It makes sense to be angry. This stuff can be hard. Can you think of anyone here who can help you when you are feeling this way?” he nodded and pointed to his para. “Would you like to ask her for help now and go back in to finish the work?” He looked up. “Will you help me?” She nodded and he led her into the room.

The classroom teacher stood with me for a minute while we watched him reintegrate and get started. I asked if she recognized what I had done – meeting him where he was (physically and emotionally), offering understanding, coming to a solution – all with him. She did.

For the student, there was a big difference between sympathy (even if it were genuine, of which I’m not sure) and empathy. An empathic response made him feel more connected and able to think. The difference between sympathy and empathy may seem slight, but it really does matter.

To put it simply, sympathy is feeling bad for someone because they feel bad; empathy is feeling bad with someone and attempting to experience a situation the way they experience it. Sympathy isn’t a bad thing, but it’s often insufficient and can even serve to create more of a divide among people when the sympathizer means to do just the opposite.

Brene Brown offers a good differentiation here:

Compared to sympathy, empathy feels more meaningful, robust, and connected. Importantly, it feels that way to the recipient, too.

After watching our student reintegrate, I offered this: “You know, you have 24 other students in that room, and it isn’t always possible to respond perfectly. It makes sense that you get frustrated or fall back on being stern and reminding students of “choices and consequences.” This stuff does not come naturally and takes practice. Tough behavior like his can make you crazy!”

She sighed, “Thanks for saying that. I feel better.”

Ah, the power of empathy.

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