Dr Brené Brown: Empathy vs Sympathy

Empathy vs Sympathy

One of the questions that we hear a lot is “What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy?” We turn to Dr. Brené Brown for one of the best explanations of empathy vs sympathy, and why empathy is so important.

“Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”

– Dr. Brené Brown

Empathy and sympathy are often grouped together, but they are very different, as Brené Brown outlines in this video. Empathy is an skill that can bring people together and make people feel included, while sympathy creates an uneven power dynamic and can lead to more isolation and disconnection. It’s an unfortunate outcome given that sympathy is usually coming from a good place.

Brown discusses the 4 key steps to showing empathy, which you can see in practice when playing the Empathy Toy.

  1. Perspective Taking, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
  2. Staying out of judgement and listening.
  3. Recognizing emotion in another person that you have maybe felt before.
  4. Communicating that you can recognize that emotion.

“Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable one.”

– Dr. Brené Brown

The challenge, as Brené Brown points out, is that empathy requires us to recall or reflect on feelings that are uncomfortable. We’re recognizing feelings like frustration, nervousness, or confusion, and trying to take that perspective with another person. Choosing empathy vs sympathy or complete disengagement is often more challenging in the short term, but the long-term reward is much greater.

“Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

– Dr. Brené Brown

Because often when people are facing a challenge or dealing with a difficult situation, they aren’t looking for a magic response that will fix everything. They may be looking for someone who can help them feel like they aren’t alone in solving the problem. They may be looking for someone who has been through a process or challenge before. They are definitely looking for a connection, and that’s what empathy is all about.

Watch the animated version of Dr. Brené Brown’s definition of empathy below!


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