Sympathy, Empathy or Compassion – What’s the best approach?

A lot of my work currently is helping leaders to manage mental health, deal with pressure and get through the challenges of a still uncertain world of fast change. I also help them help their teams as, let’s be honest, everyone has been struggling in some form. We have to help each other, and the question is: what is the best approach? Sympathy, Empathy or Compassion?


There is no right or wrong answer but understanding the different impacts these approaches have is vital to choose the one that your team member or coachee needs.


When Using Sympathy

I am working with Sally (not her real name) who is in a senior role in a government department. She and her team have been through a restructure and have been working from home for months due to the lockdown in Australia. Sally is a supportive, warm and caring leader, and looking after her team members’ wellbeing has been front and centre for her over the past few months.


Sally has been giving so much to others (that also includes her family) that she feels depleted and in our last coaching session she said that she has hit rock bottom. I helped Sally to reflect on the approach she uses with caring for everyone around her and she realised that she takes on too much of everyone’s feelings and emotions. And it’s not sustainable.


Too Much Sympathy

I observe this with other leaders too. They take on other people’s burdens and emotions to support them but with all the pain around us, is that the right approach? Leaders are suffering from burnout, not only dealing with their own stress but also because they find it challenging to set boundaries. Adam Grant says: ‘You don’t have to feel everyone’s feelings, you just need to care about them.’


So, is empathy the right approach? Where we put ourselves into other people’s shoes? Where we don’t feel the same thing but we are perspective taking.? This can be a helpful approach and sets boundaries.


We all want to be supportive, but the challenge is that we don’t always know the best way to do it or the right thing to say. Sometimes we say nothing in fear of doing the wrong thing or at other times we take on too much.


From Sympathy to Compassion (by Susan Davis)


When we use Sympathy, we feel what the other person is feeling, and we feel sorry for their struggle or pain. And sometimes that’s what people need. Just listen and understand and hold the space for them. We don’t give advice.



We understand their situation and pain and imagine what it feels like. We take perspective but don’t feel their pain. We show support but stay objective



We recognise their pain and verbalise it. We take perspective, connect with the person and offer up concrete support and help. We still set boundaries but take it a step further and bring action to our intention.


An Analogy

When someone is in pain or experiences struggle, you can imagine them to be at the bottom of a well. Using sympathy, you climb down the well and you feel what they feel, you are with them but it’s hard to get out of the well together. That’s when leaders get tired and depleted, especially if they climb down the well with too many people. When you use empathy, you take perspective and talk to them down in the well but you pass them the ladder so they can help themselves out. When you use compassion, you don’t only pass down the ladder, you also help them to take steps up the ladder and give them a hand lifting them out. You are connected the whole time; you have boundaries in place, so you don’t end up in the well and you actively help them out.


There is a time and place for all these approaches, just be mindful which is most helpful for you and the other person.


I showed Sally the ‘from Sympathy to Compassion’ model and she realised that she needs to get out of the well and move to the compassion approach to help her team members but also set boundaries for herself.


If you want to discuss how we can support you in getting the balance right in your organisation right, get in touch on



Jessica Schubert

Jessica Schubert is a Leadership Expert, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Author and Speaker. She is obsessed with helping people realise their potential and unlock their inner genius.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Jessica has travelled the world and has spent more than 20 years leading cross-cultural teams in competitive markets throughout Europe and the Asia Pacific. As she worked with and coached her own diverse, cross-cultural teams, she came to realise that learning about yourself and developing interpersonal skills is the most powerful tool to lead and influence people around you.

In 2013 she launched Intact Teams, where she and her team have worked with thousands of leaders in organisations worldwide, delivering custom-designed leadership programs and workshops. These interactive and engaging programs are offered both virtually and in-person, helping leaders and their teams succeed in a complex and ever-changing business environment.

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Jessica Schubert