Many a times I have noticed – that not everyone knows the difference between empathy and sympathy

By Lorraine Morris

“Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.”. – Brene Brown

This week we are walking into Social Awareness Lane, over the past episodes we dealt with self awareness and self management which really spoke more on “self”, we got to learn about our own emotions and how to deal with emotional triggers by making use of the emotional traffic light (RED – Stop your thoughts that may lead you to react negatively, Amber – Pause and test the validity of your emotion, Green – Go with an emotionally intelligent response).

For the next two episodes we will focus on getting to know how best to deal with others and how to handle ourselves in different situations.

The competencies of being socially aware are three-fold, there’s a need to have empathy, be politically astute (i.e. have an understanding of the politics within the organization you represent) and also have the ability to understand the needs of clients and customers.

I’m however going to spend a lot of time on empathy because this is something that we need more of as life demands continue to increase.

So let me jump right in, being socially aware is our innate ability to notice others emotions and get a sense of what they are thinking and feeling.


I’m reminded of a song by the late Leonard Dembo which goes a little something like “Zvawakangoti zii zii mudiwa wangu, chiiko chauri kufunga, chiiko chauri kuronga etc” the crux here is his mudiwa’s silence was giving him a sense that something was not right but what he was requesting was for her to share with him more of what was going on in her mind.

Similarly, when we can read other people’s voices and also their faces for emotion, it helps us to know how best to speak to them and support them. It is one’s ability to be able to empathise with the other person.

Many a times I have noticed though, that not everyone knows the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Empathy means putting yourself in the shoes of the next person and sharing their emotion, their pain as well as their sensations – it is saying to someone I share in your misfortune or suffering.

Sympathy on the other hand does not share in the emotions of another, it is more a feeling of care and concern, in other words it’s saying to someone I care about your current misfortune, your suffering from a distant etc.

I like the way Brene Brown describes empathy and sympathy in her video called Empathy which I recommend for you to watch, she mentions that “Empathy is a 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”.

I would like to share a story I recently read to bring this closer to home, the story involved a mouse, a chicken, a pig, a snake and a cow.

A mouse saw the farmer and his wife set up a mousetrap through his mousehole, hysterical, he went to tell his fellow housemates in the farmyard i.e. the chicken, the pig and the cow of this discovery but each of them just sympathised with him and said “we are sorry but it is not our concern, we can only just pray for you, its not skin off my nose etc”.

Sad and dejected he went back to his hole that evening to face what he thought was his fate, that night the mousetrap caught something, it was not the mouse but a poisonous snake which then bit the farmers wife when she came running to see what the trap had caught.

The wife was rushed to hospital with a fever, to cure the fever, there was need for chicken soup so the husband went into his backyard and slaughtered the chicken, next on the line were the pig and the cow because there was a funeral as the wife did not pull through.




The mouse witnessed all this through his hole in the wall.

I would like to pause and ask you to answer the following questions for yourself:

How often are you the chicken, the pig or the cow? In other words, your go to is always to sympathise?

Can you pick on the feelings and thoughts of others during your conversations with them?

Are you socially intelligent?

How could being an empathizer have made the ending of this story different?

The moral of the above story is we are all involved in this journey called life and it is important for us to be socially aware and keep an eye out for one another and just be kind!

Here are a few steps that you can practice showing empathy going forward:

Allow yourself to mentally step into the shoes of someone else and take their perspective.

Do not judge the next person just listen, listen, listen… (all the person may want is just to know that they are heard).

Listen to the emotion of the next person and ask yourself when you once felt that same emotion.

Let the person know that you can recognize that emotion.

Let me know these steps help you become more socially aware! Have a good week ahead, remember you can change only if you want to!


Lorraine Morris is co-founder of the Musikana Foundation – Instagram @musikanafoundation. Revive and Thrive Hub – Instagram @reviveandthrivehub









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