DON’T Bring your Empathy & Sympathy to Work?

DON’T Bring your Empathy & Sympathy to Work?

Do we really need to offer more of ourselves at work? Do we really need to add sympathy and empathy to our list of work tasks? Or, can we all benefit from a few kind words?

“We are all adults here, time to suck-it-up!”

There are many thoughts and/or comments surrounding “emotions” in the workplace. “We are all adults here, time to suck-it-up!” is just one example. Here are some others:

  • “Work isn’t a day-care. He should stop feeling sorry for himself, and get his work done.”
  • “I don’t need someone to “hold-my-hand” during the day, why should he?”
  • “What’s wrong with her? Can’t she keep her sh%t together? How embarrassing.”
  • “Hmmm…someone needing a Xanax today?”
  • “Definitely unstable – I wouldn’t want that person in charge of….anything.”

These comments/thoughts are not uncommon. We have heard them in passing conversation, gossip circles, and snide jokes. It’s easy to think this way because for years our culture has encouraged “survival of the fittest”.

“I just want to focus on my job.”

There are also many ideas as to why empathy and/or sympathy should NOT be at work. “I just want to focus on my job.” is just one example. Here are some others:

  • “I don’t want to be my colleague’s social worker, mother or father. 
  • “I don’t want to make him uncomfortable.”
  • “I could make things worse if I say the wrong thing.”
  • “The day is too busy to give empathy and/or sympathy. We have work to do!”
  • “It will make me seem weak.”
  • “Thinking about giving empathy and/or sympathy is distracting. Work is not the place for this. “

All of this negative chatter is understandable. But, is this the kind of world we want to work in? In contrast, I think a lot of us are looking for new ways to reinvent the workplace, and recognize that people are not just productive robots. Instead we are complex and beautiful human beings.

Honest, personal connections are part of what makes us living, breathing human beings.

In the “Blueprint for Workplace Reinvention” the authors indicate that Authentic Humanity is an essential step in building trust within an organization. It is important to create an environment that integrates work and life. The authors explain, “without acknowledgement of employees’ real-life realities, it will be difficult for them to have enthusiasm for any ‘higher purpose’ elements you introduce. Share in the joys and sorrows in the personal lives of employees.”

We spend a LOT of time at work. Why would anyone really want to be working in a sterile, robotic, uncaring, and unfeeling environment? Why should our humanity be turned off when we walk into work?

I have no idea where to start.

I understand that it may be scary for some people to approach others if they are not used to expressing sympathy or empathy. But, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing sort of thing. We don’t need to coddle or smother each other. It can be as simple as saying a few kind comforting words. Or, with some knowledge and practice they are skills that can be improved.

If you are just starting out on this path, you may want to begin with the sympathy examples I listed below. On the other hand, if you feel more at ease with approaching others regarding emotion, you may want to try some of the empathy examples. 

To get an idea of how well you read people, try this online quiz from the “Greater Good Science Center”. 

What the heck am I supposed to say? 8 examples of sympathy & empathy at work.

What is sympathy?

Sympathy doesn’t need true understanding of the other person’s suffering. Instead, it is about offering comfort to the person who is hurting, and making it known that you are aware of their distress.

You are feeling FOR the person.

  • Example: I’m sorry your supervisor yelled at you.
  • Example: It’s too bad you have a lot of work on your plate. Tomorrow might be a better day.
  • Example: I hope you are okay, but I will give you space. I’m here if you want to talk.
  • Example: I heard your friend passed away from cancer. Please remember to rest, and take care of yourself.

What is empathy?

Empathy is going a step further than sympathy. It is understanding or trying to understand why the person is suffering. An empathetic person will place themselves in the sufferer’s position because they have experienced the situation previously OR they make an effort to view the problem/emotions from the sufferer’s perspective. As a technique, a person who uses empathy, may reflect a person’s feelings back to them and/or paraphrase what a person said to show the level of understanding.

You are feeling WITH the person.

  • Example: I hear you saying that you are stressed out after losing an important account. I too have lost a big accountt. It happened last year, and it really took a hit on my self-esteem.
  • Example: I have been in a similar situation, but I won’t pretend to know exactly what you are feeling. Tell me more about what happened. I want to understand.
  • Example: I’m sorry to hear your pet passed away. I know you are grieving. It’s so painful to lose a pet. I’ve gone through it, and it is never easy.
  • Example: Your wife lost her job? That is tough. I remember when I was downsized a few years back it was a struggle, but we did bounce back. How are you feeling about it all?

Your words can impact another person’s life. 

Sometimes human connection can change a person’s moment, sometimes it can change their day, and sometimes it can change their life.

Your words can be used to foster a caring and comfortable workspace. The benefit is happier workers – and happier workers means improved productivity. As well, if people are valued, and treated more than just an asset, people are more likely to bring their best selves into the workplace.


If you liked this blog, check out:

Why is this store so happy?
Authentic Humanity in the Workplace #reinventwork
You’re Wrong About What Engages Employees  

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