Empathy, Sympathy, and All That Jazz

By Evie Shaye Herndon


In 2021, it seems our reality is becoming a virtual reality, with almost every aspect of our lives converted online. This opens the door to a whole new form of leadership and communication that we as members of society have to adapt to. Now, I know a lot of our readers are students and will soon be entering the business world. If that is you, you might be wondering what kind of skills are now important when it comes to virtual work and leadership in our new reality. This is where I would answer: empathy. I believe having the ability to empathize with others will become the most sought-after trait in a leadership setting.


In fact, I am not the only one who thinks this way, as Forbes recently posted an article that claims the key to being a great virtual leader is empathy. The article noted that the Harvard Business Review recently conducted a study that proved businesses were 20% more successful if they put empathy above all else. Thus, empathizing with others in the business world is no longer a preference, but it will be a requirement.


What is Empathy?

In order to have empathy, you have to understand what it is and how it works. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” Basically, it is being kind and sensitive to someone going through a hard time. It is that tiny voice in your head you have when someone tells you about a personal struggle, and you feel compelled to apologize for their hardships or help them in some way. Empathy is simply understanding someone's struggle and being sensitive to their issues. Furthermore, it is important to note that we are not talking about sympathy.


What is Sympathy?

If you have heard the word empathy, then you have probably heard the word, Sympathy. As we focus on empathy in this article, it is important to know the difference between the two. Merriam-Webster defines sympathy as “the feeling or mental state brought about by such sensitivity.” Basically, sympathy is relating to a person struggling on a personal level and understanding the tough situations they are in. It’s that feeling you get when someone's hardships weigh on you just as much, even though you are not experiencing it yourself.


How are they Different?

While the two emotional reactions are very similar, they still have a very important difference. Webster explains, “sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.” When you sympathize, you get emotional because you feel the struggle, but when you empathize, you can remain calm while still fully understanding the person's emotion.


Why is Empathy More Important?

When we are talking about a professional setting, empathy is more important because it demonstrates the ability to relate to others and keep a cool head. It is an excellent trait for someone in leadership. Great leaders will understand their subordinates and lead without emotional involvement. This is why it's so important for leadership to have empathy as opposed to sympathy. People should be more sympathetic, but in the workplace, too much sympathy may create an awkward situation.


In addition to this, it is important to note the differences in affective and cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is the type of empathy you want to have in a business setting because it allows you to maintain a certain distance from the situation you are empathizing with. Affective empathy is the opposite because it causes too much worry and will enable you in your decision-making.

Why Should I Care?

If you are a student, recently graduated, or even in the workforce today, having the ability to empathize is going to set you ahead in your career. In our new virtual world that is focused on social justice/equality, being empathetic will only make you a more desirable candidate for your future career.


In addition to what you gain from it, being empathetic not only sets you ahead but it helps everyone around you. Others in your life will feel more understood, relaxed, and joyful in the presence of someone who empathizes with them. Thus, when you work on empathy for yourself, you also are working on empathizing with others.