Transitions Coaching Blog

Thoughts. Reflections. Intentions.

Sympathy, Empathy, or Compassion: How do you choose to lead?

By Jennifer Tucker, Writer and Content Creator  |  October 7, 2022
Sympathy, Empathy, or Compassion: How do you choose to lead?

Courage, growth, connection, compassion, and curiosity.
These five values are the heartbeat of Transitions Coaching and guide our interactions with each other
and with our clients. Over the next few months, we’re taking a deeper dive into each of our values
to explore how they also emerge in leadership.

Over the past few years, we all shared a difficult—but uniquely felt—experience that shook our worlds, personally and professionally. And during this time, empathy rose to the surface as a trait that leaders need to cultivate. We can even find evidence of this in recent research that proclaimed “empathy” as the most important leadership skill.

There’s no debating the value of empathetic leadership.

Leaders who practice empathy are often better equipped to build meaningful connections, create trust, and motivate performance. But perhaps an even more crucial characteristic of effective leaders is this: compassion.

Empathy and compassion are often used interchangeably. Sympathy usually finds its way into the conversation, too. And while these traits have a lot in common, they are fundamentally different—and leaders leverage them in different ways.

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion are all commonly considered positive, human traits and behaviors. They each allow us to create connections with others in some way.

The most basic, sympathy allows us to acknowledge another person’s experience or emotions.

Going a little deeper, empathy helps us to understand—even feel—what someone else is feeling.

At the deepest level, compassion compels us to take action, to help, support, or alleviate that person’s suffering.

In my view, there’s another way that sympathy, empathy, and compassion are differentiated.

Sympathy is an emotion. Empathy is a behavior. Compassion is an intention. When we display sympathy, we’re saying, “I hear you.” When we display empathy, we’re saying, “I feel you.” When we display compassion, we’re saying, “I’m here for you.” In leadership, there’s a place for each one of these responses.

But the need to engage with sympathy, empathy, or compassion isn’t limited to leaders.

Early in my career, in my first corporate role, I had a boss with whom I had a rocky relationship. She offered little in the way of what I’ve come to understand is true leadership. Of course, it’s only now that I recognize leadership as something I needed at the time—and I also recognize I didn’t do much to elicit it.

I was often frustrated by the lack of direction I received from her, the limited time she spent with me, and the indifference she seemed to feel at my success or failure. At one point, a couple of years into our working relationship, she revealed that she was going through a divorce. She shared this in explanation for her recent absenteeism, but I see now that it was also a rare display of vulnerability from her. And 25-year-old me responded all wrong.

I don’t think I offered her much more than a nod in acknowledgment while thinking to myself, “Great, now she’s going to be even more unavailable.”

A more sympathetic me could have said, “I’m sorry to hear that. That must be really tough for you.”

A more empathetic me could have said, “I understand how much stress that must be creating in your personal life, and I know it’s going to make things hard at work, too. Let me know what I can do.”

A more compassionate me could have said, “I know you have a lot to cope with at home and at work. Let me take X, Y, or Z off your plate to alleviate some of the pressure. What else can I do to help you?”

I know, perhaps better than anyone, that some of us are not predisposed to a very emotional response. I wasn’t raised in a very sympathetic or compassionate household. I was programmed to suck it up and tough it out. That’s obviously influenced how I’m inclined to react to someone else’s struggle.

Given our history, I didn’t really feel sympathetic, empathetic, or compassionate towards my boss. If I had, it’s surely how I would have responded. But as I reflect on it now, I realize it doesn’t matter whether I felt any of these sentiments in that moment. Despite my feelings, I could have adapted my behavior.

This is where emotional intelligence comes into play.

We may not be able to change our emotions. But we can gain the capacity to manage them. We can notice our reactions and appropriately manage our responses. We can learn to perceive the impact we have on others and adjust our behaviors accordingly—and in doing so, we can strengthen our relationships.

You can learn more about Transitions Coaching and meet our team here. And if our values align with your own and you’re interested in exploring more of the tools, resources, and support we offer—like the EIP3 Emotional Intelligence Profile—then reach out to us today.