Empathy, Compassion & Sympathy… We are different!

I promise if you read till the end I’ll tell you why Mother Theresa is not a compassionate person… But until then, let me share a personal experience…


Lately, I had a discussion with a colleague. We will call her/him Sam for the sake of this article and suppose Sam is a man.

Sam was quite a bad listener. Throughout the discussion Sam repeatedly interrupted me. I understood Sam had childhood wounds he didn’t heal. I felt sympathy for what he was going through. He felt the urge to have the last word. He had things to prove! Because I’m a highly compassionate person, I would let him interrupt me. He couldn’t resist that crave…

Hum… Sorry, just lied to you… It didn’t happen that way. I’m not a very compassionate person nor did I feel that much sympathy for him. And, and, and… I’m not a monster neither! Yes, I’m an empathetic person! 😇

How come? Limited compassion, little sympathy and yet high empathy?!

Yes because each of them is a different thing… But before diving into the differences, I would like to finish my story…

So because I’m an empathetic person, I would adopt an open posture:

  1. Firm but not rigid: it’s hard to imagine that a person that frequently interrupts others can stop overnight. So during our interactions, I would let him interrupt at times but not all the time.

2. Meta-communicate: I would point out that the communication process would be eased if each could finish what he had to say before the other jumped in… and careful with the tone of voice, it should be assertive, neither begging nor teaching.

3. Give feedback: after the discussion, I would, from time to time, have a face to face feedback session to explain that what he was doing wasn’t good neither for him nor for me. He needed to get a hold over it. No easy thing to do. Still, the need was there.

By doing so, I’m contributing to building his self-awareness. This would help him manage a much broader range of situations with other colleagues. This is contributing to his growth as an individual.

On the other hand, if I would just let him interrupt because I know how tough it is for him to behave, I’m not allowing any transformation to happen. Why not short term? But it doesn’t build anything. Every new situation is a new transaction to manage. There is no learning curve. No maturity. Just the same old thing that repeats itself. Time passes, he gets older but doesn’t grow up…

So what’s the difference between empathy, compassion & sympathy?

Sympathy is an emotional connection to the situation or the person; we feel for the other. Despite that, we don’t act. Some may even relay your problem/situation to the whole planet, others might pray for you but none of them would do a thing… that’s sympathy. This is what most of us felt for the Amazon or Notre Dame de Paris while burning. We felt, shared but didn’t act.

Can we pray for a prayer facility?!

Then there are some who will both feel that emotional connection and try to save you. Those are of the compassionate type. 

Compassionate people can’t help but help 🤔

If you are used to playing the victim’s role, they come as a perfect complement to the drama at play. If not you will feel, they are invading your privacy. You didn’t ask for help. Why are they that persistent?

Dear compassionate person, I did ask for pizza but not for your help… 😏

The below table explains the difference between both concepts using 2 criteria: emotional connection and action.

Compassion vs. Sympathy Matrix

What is empathy then?

Empathy is a different animal. It requires understanding the other’s perspective. A mere emotional connection doesn’t play the trick. An empathetic person may act but it’s a choice, not an irresistible urge like for the case of a compassionate type.

While compassion & sympathy are personality traits, empathy requires practice. Understanding others is not about mind-reading. It’s about utilizing our observational skills and asking the proper questions. By the same token, high EQ does help to perceive others’ emotions without necessarily connecting to them.

To integrate empathy into our matrix, we need to add an extra criterium: understanding.

Compassion vs. Sympathy vs. Empathy Matrix

To sum up 

Consider the below formulas:

Empathy = Understanding other’s perspective [yes] + choosing to act [yes,no] + emotional connection [yes,no]

Sympathy = Emotional connection [yes]

Compassion = Emotional connection [yes] + Action [yes]

What’s wrong with sympathy & compassion?

Q: What is the biological role of compassion?
A: According to doctor Jordan Peterson, compassion primary role is for childcare. Parents, need to be compassionate enough, so that when a baby cries out they take good care of her/him instead of hitting her/him in the head to shut the hell up. By the way, this is exactly what a male bear would do to the cubs. When not kept away by the female, the male often ends up killing the cubs! So compassion is highly useful in dealing with kids!!!

Heat not hit

Q: Ah so compassion is for kids?! Is it any good for adults?
A: Imagine if an HR manager had to connect emotionally to a full organization to do properly her/his job?! Not feasible, right? A real drain of energy! Now imagine a nurse…

A few very cute babies crying at once!

Lately I met a compassionate nurse that worked in oncology. Since she joined, this department she lost 15Kg and I can tell you it wasn’t desired. She does a great job… But she kills herself doing so. She could do as well, if not better while saving her soul by being less compassionate and more empathetic.

You got the point, connecting emotionally is not always a good thing. Seeing the world from others’ perspective is most often enriching.


This is where Mother Theresa jumps in… 

Mother Theresa was once in Africa for a kids’ vaccination campaign. Upon her arrival, she was informed that the vaccine was available in sufficient quantities but that kids’ sized syringe needles were out of stock. They had to use adults’ ones. While part of her staff was hesitant, she instructed using what was available at hand. Not the most compassionate decision you would say. Yes, but it does move things forward for the better. 


When to use empathy?

Simple answer: as long as it is not an energy drain… all the time and with everybody!

Longer answer: let me clarify why…

Empathy can help in almost any context:

  • With a baby crying his lungs out. The fastest you understand her/his need the more rested your ears will be. 🙂
  • With a colleague from a different department with apparently conflicting agendas.
  • With a customer that doesn’t know exactly what s/he wants but can cry out her/his problem.
  • With your spouse that seems to be frustrated while you are convinced you did nothing wrong… Or maybe you did nothing while you were supposed to do something? 🙂

Understanding others’ perspectives is damn useful. This is a general truth that holds in many contexts. Even “negative” ones… Yes, while we may intuitively think that we need things like trust, credibility… and the like to build empathy, it is not a must. Consider the following examples:

  • A profiler needs to put himself in the shoes of the criminal. S/he needs to understand the world from her/his perspective. That’s the only way s/he can catch the offender.
  • In war, you need to know all about your enemy including how they think. I’m not an expert but I’m just citing Sun Tzu from the art of war.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

The only limit of empathy is the energy and time it requires. You cannot afford to use it all the time. But it is useful with different audiences including your enemies.


Just like Mother Teresa, leaders that contribute to others’ growth emphasize empathy over compassion and sympathy.

What is most relevant to expect from a boss or a colleague is to be able to understand the situation from your standpoint and enable you to move forward without trying to save you or feel for you…

In fact, to sum all up, empathy is simply about treating adults as… adults!

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