In a workshop, I delivered last week on Practical Emotional Intelligence for Beginners, one of my attendees interjected with his own interpretation of the difference between sympathy and empathy, two terms that are often confused with each other. It got me to thinking, do I really know what the differences are? And just how much do I understand about empathy, one of the core components of emotional intelligence?

I personally love it when I’m given a new perspective on something I believe I know enough about.

Some educators and speakers hate it when their audiences challenge them, I love it. Okay. So, love might be a stretch, I’m not about to go and actively seek being challenged when I’m already in a vulnerable position on stage, but when it comes naturally, I enjoy the experience because I thrive on the shared learning we gain.

Of course, you can never really know more-than-enough about a topic but sometimes, especially as a knowledge generalist like me, you get to a point of knowing just enough that you can convey adequate interpretation that the lesson or point is made and you can move on.

When Justin shared his understanding of sympathy with us, I realised I needed to learn more. It was proven that my level had been matched and I needed to level-up my knowledge.

Side note here, you want that from a coach. You never want to work with a coach who is content to remain at just-enough. Seek to work with someone who is always levelling up when you’ve caught up with them. I wrote about how to find the right coach for you here. Granted the post is about how to find a small business coach, but the lessons taught are applicable to many different types of coaching.

As I did the research for this article, I found myself getting all twisted up in knots over definitions and interpretations, trying in earnest to make sense of what compassion, empathy and sympathy are. So, for the sake of clarity, let’s talk about what they are, but do so with the understanding that this is just my way of interpreting their meanings. And, in doing so, let’s level-up together.

First, a word on compassion.

The emotional intelligence of compassion

If you’re anything like me, you care about fellow mankind. If you see someone hurting, a part of you hurts too. If you see a loved one in distress, you naturally want to reach out to help them. Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering (source).

The thing is though, I’m not convinced that compassion is related only to negative emotions or suffering. I think compassion has granularity between positive and negative emotions being shared and the desire to help/contribute.

It’s on this positive-negative scale that I find the essence of compassion. It is when we collaborate on the knowledge to help each other be better humans – as examples, through sharing the pain and wanting to relieve the pain by helping, or through sharing the joy and wanting to contribute to the joy by sharing in the enthusiasm.

The emotional intelligence of compassion is understanding what’s needed in a given moment to share your compassion with another person. It’s taking into consideration who you are in context to the other person, it is being able to express yourself in an appropriate way using words the other person can relate to, and it’s being able to connect and share in the experience in a way that is beneficial to the other person.

Compassion comprises of both sympathy and empathy – and empathy’s multiple types (there are three). Compassion can also be just for you – self-compassion – and it can cause you to experience compassion fatigue where you give too much of your care – whether positive or negative – away without regard to what you need psychologically, emotionally and physically.

Sympathy is the experience of associated feelings

When you’re feeling sympathy for someone, you’re feeling the same feelings as the other person you’re relating to. We often equate sympathy with negative experiences like crying when someone else is crying, but, like compassion, I do not believe it’s only negative. If sympathy is the shared feeling of emotions then it makes sense that those emotions can also be positive.

In NLP, we talk about being associated and disassociated, that is, when an experience, a memory, or a feeling is associated we see it through our own eyes, we feel the emotions in present time. Sympathy is when you’re associated with the other person’s experience.

If someone is stupidly excited about something, you’re right up there with them, you are feeling every bit as excited as they are. Imagine your partner has just learned they’ve won the lottery. You would be right there alongside them jumping around with joy, right? That’s a form of positive sympathy.

I think of sympathy as the first level of the emotional intelligence of compassion. Empathy takes sympathy up to the next level of compassion.

Empathy is the experience of disassociated feelings

With sympathy, you feel what the other person feels. With empathy, you understand the feelings but you’re not necessarily feeling them yourself, you’re disassociated from the feelings.

You empathise with a homeless person when you’ve never been homeless. You cannot feel precisely what it’s like to be homeless. It’s your imagination telling you what it would be like if you lost everything.

You empathise with someone’s grief when you’ve not known the loss of someone close to you. You are only considering what that person’s pain is really like because you’ve felt something similar.

You empathise with your friend’s excitement for graduating when you’ve not been to graduation. You do not really feel what she’s experiencing but you can imagine it because you have a sense of achievement from something else.

When we empathise we are being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another without communicating the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully in an objectively explicit manner (source).

In the EQ-i 2.0 model of emotional intelligence, empathy is the ability to recognize, understand and appreciate how other people feel. Empathy involves being able to articulate your understanding of another’s perspective and behaving in a way that respects others’ feelings.

The three types of empathy

This morning, on Spotify, I listened to the SuperSoul Conversations podcast, hosted by Oprah. She interviewed psychologist and scientific journalist, Dr Daniel Goleman (episode: Emotional Intelligence 101), on the topics of emotional intelligence, relationships, compassion and empathy, which spurred my motivation for today’s levelling up.

In this interview, Goleman describes three types of empathy.

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy is what most people attribute to standard or general empathy, as I described above. It’s about taking the perspective of the other person. You know the old adage, walk a mile in another’s shoes… this empathy is the shared knowledge of what someone is experiencing.

The flip side of cognitive empathy is used by narcissists, sociopaths, most politicians and many marketers. These people calibrate their empathy to take advantage of you, to influence you for their own gain and to manipulate you for their own needs. They have very little to no sympathy (when put to the test for the benefit only for their client or constituent, it’d be arguable whether is conscientiously and morally motivated).

Emotional Empathy

Here’s where the lines between sympathy, empathy and compassion become blurred by Dr Goleman and other researchers. And where it’s confused the bejesus out of me.

Emotional empathy, according to Dr Goleman’s website, is “when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. This emotional contagion, social neuroscience tells us, depends in large part on the mirror neuron system [of our brain]. Emotional empathy makes someone well-attuned to another person’s inner emotional world. [This is] a plus in any of a wide range of callings, from sales to nursing – let alone for any parent or lover.”

Akin to compassionate fatigue, a downside of emotional empathy Dr Goleman goes on to say, “occurs when people lack the ability to manage their own distressing emotions. [It] can be seen in the psychological exhaustion that leads to burnout. The purposeful detachment cultivated by those in medicine offers one way to inoculate against burnout. But the danger arises when detachment leads to indifference, rather than to well-calibrated caring.”

Empathetic Concern (aka Compassionate Empathy)

With this kind of empathy, according to Dr Goleman, we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed, that is we are compassionately led to contribute and solve problems.

Parents are great examples of empathetic concern – as a mother, I am hurting just as much as my son is when he’s in pain. Sometimes, as parents, we have to let our kids hurt themselves, they have to learn to find their own limits.

Of course, I warn that going down the bowl’s rim of the skatepark sitting on your skateboard may lead to a lot of pain and likely a bit of blood, but if my four-year-old shows clear comprehension to the decision he has made, I have to let him go. To limit him is to also hinder his psychological development. We’re screwed if we do and screwed if we don’t. If he hurts himself, I’m there. But, I’m in pain too. Motherhood sucks like that.

That’s a pretty specific example from my experience yesterday. But it’s true too in my coaching.

I have to be careful as a coach not to have too much empathetic concern for my clients when they’re going through particularly challenging situations.

Part of my job is to hold my client’s accountable, but if I’m not careful to compartmentalise my personal concerns for their psychological and emotional wellbeing from that of my professional responsibility for their development, I can find myself awake in the middle of the night worrying about them, when that worry is either unfounded or related to an imagined scenario which may or may not happen.

I have to force myself to remain objective by seeking only the facts and at times, I need to intentionally distance myself from them so that I can guarantee I’m not unduly influencing their journey.

Levelling up your emotional intelligence of compassion

Taking what I’ve learned about the emotional intelligence of compassion, I am now able to look at my interactions through a much more robust lens. Were you to do the same, can you now look at your relationships – at work, with your spouse, children, friends – and ask, how can I increase my emotional intelligence of compassion here?

In what ways can you care more, collaborate on knowledge-sharing, communicate your empathy more effectively all in the effort to be a better human?

Your coach,



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