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Empathy vs. Sympathy: A Crucial Distinction for Schools

Empathy is often viewed as vital to student success. But what is empathy, really?

Ask your friends to define the term and you inevitably hear something about kindness, understanding, or the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

But that’s only partially right, says Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Through a series of qualitative one-on-one interviews, Brown explores the deep emotions that enhance—or deflate—basic human interactions.

In a video for RSA, and shared by Mind/Shift, Brown defines empathy as “feeling with people.”

“I always think of empathy as kind of this sacred space. When someone’s in a deep hole and they shout from the bottom, ‘I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed,’ and we look and we say ‘Hey!’ And, we climb down. ‘I know what it’s like down here. And you’re not alone.’”

Empathy is not sympathy. Brown makes that clear. But leaders who need to understand empathy and how to use it often don’t know the difference.

Check out the full video here:

Empathy = connection

The power of empathy lies in its ability to connect people on a deep emotional level, Brown says.

She cites the work of nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman, who, in her work, outlined four main aspects of empathy:

  1. Understanding others’ perspectives
  2. Avoiding judgement
  3. Recognizing others’ emotions
  4. Communicating those emotions

People who are empathetic don’t have the answers to every problem, Brown says. What they provide, instead, is a deep emotional connection and understanding.

Sympathy, on the other hand, is a tactic, a way of acknowledging other people’s problems, without displaying true emotional understanding, Brown says.

Recall the last time a student or parent came to you with an emotional crisis. Did you scramble to find a silver lining? If so, chances are you didn’t truly connect with that person, Brown says.

“One of the things we try to do sometimes in the face of very difficult conversations, is we try to make things better…The truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

Putting empathy to work in schools

You want to help people. But, as Brown’s research shows, that doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers.

More important is to demonstrate that you’re listening, that you understand the emotions people are experiencing, and that you’re committed to helping them seek a solution.

Brown’s work shows that acknowledging a student’s emotions without judgement is just as important as helping solve the problem.

It’s also proof that an ongoing, authentic conversation goes a long way toward building stronger, more productive relationships with the people you care about and serve.

What steps do you take to promote empathy and understanding in your school community? Tell us in the comments.

Want ideas about how to bring empathy into your schools and classrooms? Read Student empathy is disappearing from schools. Here’s how to get it back.