Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

english empathy versus sympathy versus compassion

How do people develop compassion?

Is it a trait that we’re born with?

What about empathy?

And how is empathy different from sympathy?

Do we learn empathy when we’re kids?

These three terms are similar but different.

They are key vocabulary terms if you want to be able to have an interesting conversation in English with a native speaker about human interactions and human feelings.

That’s why we’re going to learn how to use these three terms today.

Let’s start with a question from our listener:

Dear Lindsay and Michelle!

Thank you for your wonderful and useful podcast. I keep listening it and highly recommend it for all learners to boost communication skills.

Will you be so kind to devote an episode to the three kind of similar words: empathy, sympathy, compassion.

Thanks in advance,

AEE Listener



  • Dictionary definition: “A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”
  • In Buddhism- it is considered one of the four Brahma Viharas which are the highest attitudes or emotions. Also in Buddhism they say that compassion’s “nearest enemy” is pity and it’s far enemy is cruelty.



  • Dictionary definition=”Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.”
  • Example: “They had great sympathy for the flood victims.”
  • This term is always lined up against “empathy” as being less profound or less genuine, but “sympathy” is more of a passing mind state while “empathy” is more of a character trait.

It’s sometimes used in phrases:

  • “I would like to express my deepest sympathy for your loss.”
  • “I can sympathize with your point of view.” (this is useful)



  • A lot of people say that this is one of the biggest or THE biggest trait they look for in a romantic partner.
  • The difference between “empathy” and “sympathy”: When you have “empathy” you are not looking down on someone that has experienced a misfortune. It’s not condescending. Instead, you are standing in the person’s shoes and feeling what they’re feeling without experiencing the tragedy.

So if you have high levels of empathy you are probably ALWAYS anticipating how someone will feel or sensing how someone feels.

You are always attuned to it.

Empathy is super important in the workplace.

Lots of studies are coming out now on the importance of empathy for workplace success.

The tricky part here is that although empathy is a human trait it probably gets displayed differently across cultures.

It would be easy to misunderstand a colleague from another culture and how they express empathy.

Read more about empathy and leadership here. 


What questions do you have from today?

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for listening to today’s episode.

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