How to get a teacher’s sympathy

Understood’s resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood’s resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Imagine this scenario: You’re eating lunch in the teacher’s lounge, and the cafeteria monitor comes to find you. One of your students, Shaun, is pushing other students to get to the front of the line to go outside for recess. This is the third day in a row the monitor has interrupted your lunch for the same reason.

Frustrated, you rush down the hall. You tell Shaun that if he can’t wait his turn calmly, he’ll have to be the last one in line from now on. Your reaction is understandable—what you see is a student who is continuing to shove other kids out of his way even after he’s been told not to.

Student Behavior and Empathy

What you see your students do and hear them say influences your perception of them. With a classroom full of students, it’s natural to react to students based on those outward behaviors—but what’s happening below the surface ?

It’s human nature to focus on how a student’s negative behavior takes time away from teaching and affects your classroom. When you are charged with managing behavior in addition to teaching content, it’s easy to overlook what’s happening with the student and focus on what’s happening to you as the teacher.

Showing empathy can help you change that dynamic, so you not only acknowledge and consider what you see and feel, but also what you don’t see. Those unseen challenges could include learning and thinking differences. But other struggles, such as trauma or hunger, may also be involved.

What Empathy Is

Empathy is a way of connecting with other people that shows you understand that they’re experiencing something meaningful—even though you may not understand exactly how it feels for them. In other words, empathy is about finding a way to connect and to be able to say, “I want to understand how this feels to you and let you know that you’re not alone.”

Empathy is a powerful tool that can help you better understand what’s driving your students’ behavior and find strategies to help. It can also help you connect and work through difficult moments together.

What Empathy Isn’t

Keep in mind that empathy isn’t the same as sympathy. When you are sympathetic, you may feel sorry for students. Even though you may care deeply for them, sympathy may lead you to look down on students instead of trying to understand or connect with them.

Being empathetic does not mean lowering your expectations. You can validate and have empathy for students, while at the same time holding them to high standards. In moments when you connect with students empathetically, you can reinforce your belief in their ability to succeed.

Empathy may not be about feeling sorry, but it is about feelings. Give yourself permission to acknowledge your own emotions. It’s natural to be frustrated or upset. What’s going on with your students has an emotional impact on you, too. You may need to take a minute to regroup before you talk to the student.

When you’re ready and able to be empathetic in stressful moments, it shows that you’re trying to get past your own feelings. You’re modeling for students what it looks like to practice self-control and to tune into other people’s feelings.

The Four Parts of Empathy

Researchers have identified four main attributes of what it means to be empathetic. Integrating these practices into your teaching can show students that you see what they’re going through as more than just a problem to fix.

Perspective taking. When you take a different perspective, you put aside your own feelings and reactions to see the situation through your students’ eyes. You may start by asking yourself: Do I believe my students are doing the very best they can?

Putting aside judgment. It’s easy to jump to and express conclusions about the situation based on what you see. But it’s important to step back and consider: What more do I need to learn and understand about the situation?

Trying to understand the student’s feelings. If you can, tap into your own experiences to find a way to understand what the student is feeling or to remember a time when you felt something similar. Be careful not to overdo it, however. Each person’s experiences are their own, so saying “I know how you feel” can come across as disingenuous. If you’re struggling, ask yourself: What more do I need to learn and understand about how other people are reacting to or perceiving the situation?

Communicate that you understand. Talk to your students without using “fix it” phrases like “what you need to do is….” Instead, try reflective phrases like, “It sounds like you…” or “I hear that you….” As teachers, our instinct is often to contain the situation and find a quick fix. That can help in the short term. But it won’t build long-term trust with students. And it won’t help students learn to solve problems with you, and eventually try to solve issues on their own. This step requires you to do some self-reflection: What more do I need to learn and understand about how I react in the moment? What more do I need to learn about how I communicate to others that I hear them, even though I’m experiencing my own emotions?

Did you ever wonder if kids are born with empathy, or if you have to teach it? Well, I have the answer.

Some people are born with an innate sense of what others feel. They have a good imagination and consciously direct that imagination to put themselves in another person’s shoes. And, fortunately, if your kid doesn’t seem to have it, they can be taught. Or, if they have a little bit of it, they can be encouraged to help blossom.

Perhaps at one point in the etymology of the word empathy, it meant that “you know what another feels because you have been through the same thing.” (Like this video says.) I disagree. Maybe the meaning of the word changed. But, it had to, because that kind of empathy cannot exist.

No two people’s lives are identical. Even if you’ve been through a similar “something awful,” your experience of that “awful” is informed by all your past experiences (as well as your understanding of those experiences). It is also informed by your health, your self-image, your relationships, your spirituality. There are infinite ways to experience the same “something awful,” so no person can possibly know exactly what another feels. We truly can only imagine.

And that imagination can be very powerful!

Can You Teach Empathy?

Some kids have less empathy than others. You can teach them how to be more empathetic, and most kids will embrace the lessons because of the benefits they get out of having empathy. (I speak about the benefits in this video!)

You, me, your kids, teens, and tweens can use empathy to have happiness in life. In this video, I share the reasons we need to teach our kids empathy and then share four practices that help them learn how to cultivate it.

Four Ways to Teach Empathy to Your Kids

Why Teaching Empathy is Important to Emotional Wellness

When kids can understand what another person is going through, this helps them read the world. And when you can read the world, you are less vulnerable, and you feel more in control. When you have insight into what is happening inside people’s minds and hearts, you interact with them in ways that are better for you and them. For example, if you know someone is in physical pain, you may not take it as personally when they snap at you. It doesn’t make it okay that they snapped at you, but it helps you not feel like a victim of it. And, from that clarity, you know how to respond to that snap. Empathy helps you feel less hurt, it facilitates strong bonds between you and the people around you, and you feel a sense of purpose in those connections. Alternately, empathy can alert you to step away from someone that can potentially hurt you.

Empathy makes you feel like helping others. When you see people hurting or feeling unloved, you feel motivated to take action to show them that they matter, giving them belonging and acceptance and you meaningful existence. Watch my previous video for why you need those to be happy.

How to get a teacher's sympathyWatch What Your Kids Be to Be Happy

How to Teach Empathy

Here are the four ways to get started on right now to teach your kids empathy:

  1. Practice empathy by discussing characters and events from movies, TV, or books. This is so great because there is often nothing in the way of this learning. No fear, baggage, or hurt feelings to wade through, and this may help kids gain easier access to their empathy skills.
  2. Use the imagination. Kids and teens have great imaginations. (If you don’t believe me, watch a couple of TikTok videos. Those kids are so clever!) Have them close their eyes and imagine: If you were ________, how would you feel?
  3. Model empathy. Your kids are witnessing how you respond to them when they are feeling bad. This is a good time to model empathy! Also, let your kids see you (and participate) when you are thoughtful with people going through a hard time. Do you send flowers, offer help, or make dinner when friends are struggling?
  4. Teach them to take a step back. This is one of the best skills a person can have to cope with life. People can do this once they have compassion for themselves, which you teach them by being having empathy for them!

I hope you liked my video. If so, I would love you to share it!

Empathy vs. Sympathy: What is The Difference?

Both empathy and sympathy are made from the Greek word “pathos,” which means suffering. They are both a response to suffering.

Sympathy is feeling bad when you know the facts of someone else’s suffering. Empathy is deeper and feels better to the recipient. It is a sense of understanding the suffering of someone else because you can imagine it by putting yourself in their shoes.

You may be wondering about where being “empathic” fits in here. Literally, the definitions of empathetic and empathic are interchangeable, but the connotation of being “empathic” is an intuitive feeling that surpasses regular empathy.

I also mention compassion in this video because I understand compassion to a loving act of empathy. A way of showing your empathy in a loving way to someone that helps them feel worthy, understood, and cared for.

Tell me your favorite part of these videos:

And Why You Should Care

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How to get a teacher's sympathy

  • B.S., Texas A&M University

Is that “empathy” or “sympathy” you’re showing? While the two words are often incorrectly used interchangeably, the difference in their emotional impact is important. Empathy, as the ability to actually feel what another person is feeling — literally “walk a mile in their shoes” — goes beyond sympathy, a simple expression of concern for another person’s misfortune. Taken to extremes, deep or extended feelings of empathy can actually be harmful to one’s emotional health.

Sympathy

Sympathy is a feeling and expression of concern for someone, often accompanied by a wish for them to be happier or better off. “Oh dear, I hope the chemo helps.” In general, sympathy implies a deeper, more personal, level of concern than pity, a simple expression of sorrow.

However, unlike empathy, sympathy does not imply that one’s feelings for another are based on shared experiences or emotions.

Empathy

As a translation into English of the German word Einfühlung — “feeling into” — made by psychologist Edward Titchener in 1909, “empathy” is the ability to recognize and share another person’s emotions.

Empathy requires the ability to recognize the suffering of another person from their point of view and to openly share their emotions, including painful distress.

Empathy is often confused with sympathy, pity and compassion, which are merely recognition of another person’s distress. Pity typically implies that the suffering person does not “deserve” what has happened to him or her and is powerless to do anything about it. Pity shows a lower degree of understanding and engagement with the suffering person’s situation than empathy, sympathy, or compassion.

Compassion is a deeper level of empathy, demonstrating an actual desire to help the suffering person.

Since it requires shared experiences, people can generally feel empathy only for other people, not for animals. While people may be able to sympathize with a horse, for example, they cannot truly empathize with it.

Psychologists say that empathy is essential in forming relationships and acting compassionately toward others. Since it involves experiencing another person’s point of view—stepping outside one’s self—empathy enables genuinely helping behaviors that come easily and naturally, rather than having to be forced.

Empathetic people work effectively in groups, make more lasting friendships, and are more likely to step in when they see others being mistreated. It is believed that people begin to show empathy in infancy and develop the trait through childhood and adolescence. Despite their level of concern for others, however, most people tend to feel deeper empathy for people similar to themselves compared to people outside their family, community, race, ethnicity or cultural background.

The Three Types of Empathy

According to psychologist and pioneer in the field of emotions, Paul Ekman, Ph.D., three distinct types of empathy have been identified:

  • Cognitive Empathy: Also called “perspective taking,” cognitive empathy is the ability to understand and predict the feelings and thoughts of other by imagining one’s self in their situation.
  • Emotional Empathy: Closely related to cognitive empathy, emotional empathy is the ability to actually feel what another person feels or at least feel emotions similar to theirs. In emotional empathy, there is always some level of shared feelings. Emotional empathy can be a trait among persons diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.
  • Compassionate Empathy: Driven by their deep understanding of the other person’s feelings based on shared experiences, compassionately empathic people make actual efforts to help.

While it can give meaning to our lives, Dr. Ekman warns that empathy can also go terribly wrong.

The Dangers of Empathy

Empathy can give purpose to our lives and truly comfort people in distress, but it can also do great harm. While showing an empathetic response to the tragedy and trauma of others can be helpful, it can also, if misdirected, turn us into what Professor James Dawes has called “emotional parasites.”

Empathy Can Lead to Misplaced Anger

Empathy can make people angry — perhaps dangerously so — if they mistakenly perceive that another person is threatening a person they care for.

For example, while at a public gathering, you notice a heavyset, casually dressed man who you think is “staring” at your pre-teenage daughter. While the man has remained expressionless and has not moved from his spot, your empathetic understanding of what he “might” be thinking of doing to your daughter drives you into a state of rage.

While there was nothing in the man’s expression or body language that should have lead you to believe he intended to harm your daughter, your empathetic understanding what was probably “going on inside his head” took you there.

Danish family therapist Jesper Juul has referred to empathy and aggression as “existential twins.”

Empathy Can Drain Your Wallet

For years, psychologists have reported cases of overly empathetic patients endangering the well-being of themselves and their families by giving away their life savings to random needy individuals. Such overly empathetic people who feel they are somehow responsible for the distress of others have developed an empathy-based guilt.

The better-known condition of “survivor guilt” is a form of empathy-based guilt in which an empathic person incorrectly feels that his or her own happiness has come at the cost or may have even caused another person’s misery.

According to psychologist Lynn O’Connor, persons who regularly act out of empathy-based guilt, or “pathological altruism,” tend to develop mild depression in later-life.

Empathy Can Harm Relationships

Psychologists warn that empathy should never be confused with love. While love can make any relationship — good or bad — better, empathy cannot and can even hasten the end of a strained relationship. Essentially, love can cure, empathy cannot.

As an example of how even well-intentioned empathy can damage a relationship, consider this scene from the animated comedy television series The Simpsons: Bart, bemoaning the failing grades on his report card, says, “This is the worst semester of my life.” His dad, Homer, based on his own school experience, tries to comfort his son by telling him, “Your worst semester so far.”

Empathy Can Lead to Fatigue

Rehabilitation and trauma counselor Mark Stebnicki coined the term “empathy fatigue” to refer to a state of physical exhaustion resulting from repeated or prolonged personal involvement in the chronic illness, disability, trauma, grief, and loss of others.

While more common among mental health counselors, any overly empathetic person can experience empathy fatigue. According to Stebnicki, “high touch” professionals like doctors, nurses, lawyers, and teachers tend to suffer from empathy fatigue.

Introduction

Empathy is a word that the majority of students have most likely heard before, but it is not one that many fully understand. Psychology Today defines empathy as “the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own.” Having empathy is an important trait for any person to possess because it helps us to understand one anothers’ experiences and communicate effectively with others. Teaching students about empathy will be extremely beneficial for them (and the rest of the world) in the long run.

There are many resources available on the internet for teaching students about empathy and bringing the concept of empathy into schools without necessarily implementing a new curriculum. Though empathy seems like a skill that shouldn’t need to be taught, talking to students about what empathy is and why it is important is instrumental in making positive change in the unfeeling world of technology.

Lesson Plans

  1. Academy 4SC : Find videos related to empathy at Academy 4SC, like Harlow’s Rhesus Monkey Experiments: Monkeying Around With Love, Moral Luck: Who’s to Blame?, and Anthropomorphism: Human Traits for Non-Humans?, among others. Teachers have access to resources like worksheets, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more included in each topic’s lesson plan. Explore Academy 4SC’s full library of applicable content under the tag Empathy.
  2. Leaders 4SC Forces: Leaders 4SC provides a variety of Task Forces that provoke students to think critically about key issues as they roleplay as decision-makers and brainstorm well-detailed solutions. Each Task Force comes with step-by-step instructions, Google slide templates to be used with virtual breakout rooms, and topic-specific questions to get students started. The activities can be completed either individually or as part of a group. A fun Task Force is Anti-Bullying Policies in Schools That Work.
  3. Developing Empathy : Teaching Tolerance provides a lesson plan that “helps students gain a deeper understanding of empathy and how to put it into practice.” The lesson includes objectives, essential questions, vocabulary, an overview, a list of materials, activities, and an extension activity. Students will learn whether or not they do a good job showing empathy or if they could be more empathetic, and they’ll have the opportunity to practice being empathetic listeners in pairs. By the end, the class will gain an understanding of empathy and apply their new knowledge in a controlled situation.
  4. Top 7 Best Empathy Lesson Plans and Why You Need Them : This write-up, from Applied educational systems, discusses the reasons why schools need to teach students empathy in the age of technology and offers seven of the best lesson plans with corresponding explanations. Lessons from Teaching Tolerance , The Teachers Guild, Hasbro & Ashoka, Preventing Bullying, Brookes Publishing Co., and more are reviewed. There’s something here for every teacher to utilize in their classroom!
  5. 40 Kindness Activities & Empathy Worksheets for Students and Adults : This article contains tips on how to teach kindness, seven kindness activities for elementary students, preschoolers, and middle schoolers, world kindness day activities, information on how to teach empathy, four empathy worksheets for students and adults, fun empathy exercises for the classroom, a take-home message, and references. PositivePsychology.com gives a lot of great classroom activities, worksheets, games, exercises, and information for use!
  1. Teaching Strategies: The Importance of Empathy : TeachHub.com published a piece talking about how empathy equals intelligence and teaching strategies that include empathy in the classroom. This article does not include a lesson plan but rather gives teachers tips on how to incorporate empathy into their classes without actually setting a day aside to teach a class on the subject. Tips, including being a good example, sharing stories, working on communication, and offering collaborative group tasks are covered.
  2. How To Teach Empathy : teachthought issued an article about how to teach empathy to students. The author, Terry Heick, explains the difference between empathy and sympathy, differentiates between the two different types of empathy (affective and cognitive empathy), and addresses how exactly one can teach a class about empathy.
  3. Why the World Needs an Empathy Revolution : This article, from Greater Good Magazine, describes why the world needs an empathy revolution. Jill Suttie, the writer, starts off with discussing The Empathy Effect by Helen Riess and her research on empathy, particularly in health care. Suttie discusses the science behind empathy, the fact that empathy can be taught with Riess’s new program called EMPATHICS, and taking empathy beyond health care. This is a great source of information!

Informational Sites

  1. Empathy vs. Sympathy: How to Practice Empathy and Fuel Connection : This site outlines one of the most important things to understand when learning about empathy: the difference between empathy and sympathy. sixseconds also offers a humorous video about empathy vs. sympathy before jumping into discussing listening vs. fixing, the ‘at least’ trap, validating vs. reassuring, and an empathy vs. sympathy experiment. In all, this website is perfect for both students and teachers to learn how to be empathetic (instead of sympathetic) and to recognize the dos and don’ts of empathy.
  2. Empathy : Psychology Today gives a quick run-down on the definition of empathy and whether a person can be too empathetic. This website is ideal for teachers who want to give their students a bit of information before jumping into lessons!
  3. There Are Actually 3 Types of Empathy. Here’s How They Differ–and How You Can Develop Them All : This informational website helps readers to understand the three different types of empathy (cognitive, emotional, and compassionate) with the hope that they can develop them all. The author describes how to build these three various types of empathy so well, which makes it a great resource for students to take a look at!

Empathy is one of the most important traits to have when building both long-term relationships and friendships, but it is often overlooked. Still, it is crucial to learn how to be empathetic—to be able to understand, communicate, and share experiences with people of different backgrounds who have different stories—in a world with so much hardship and disaster. Teaching (and learning) about how to develop empathy in a class is not an easy feat but is definitely worth it in the end.

Additional Resources

  1. Importance and Benefits of Empathy : This article talks about a few topics relating to empathy that are extremely beneficial for students to learn about. verywellmind goes over the types of empathy, the neuroscientific, emotional, and prosocial reasons human beings feel empathy, the benefits of empathy, factors that play a role in a person’s tendency to show empathy, and why people lack empathy. It’s a great read!
  2. Understanding others’ feelings: what is empathy and why do we need it?: This informational site discusses the three ways one can look at empathy, the reasons empathy is necessary, how empathy is measured, and if empathy can be selective. The Conversation uses this introductory ssay to help readers better understand others’ feelings.

How to get a teacher's sympathyHow To Teach Empathy

by Terry Heick

Right near the core of education, just past tolerance and just short of affectionate connectivity, is the idea of empathy.

University of California at Berkley’s Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life explains empathy. “The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”

Empathy is often confused with sympathy, which is a pretty extraordinary error depending on how tightly wound you are about these things (and whose definitions you stand behind). According to Dr. Brene Brown offers a divisive take on the difference. “Empathy fuels connections, sympathy drives disconnection.”

This contrasts with dictionary.com, which explains “Both empathy and sympathy are feelings concerning other people. Sympathy is literally ‘feeling with’ – compassion for or commiseration with another person. Empathy, by contrast, is literally ‘feeling into’ – the ability to project one’s personality into another person and more fully understand that person.” dictionary.com marks just a slight discrepancy between the two—sympathy requiring less movement and merging of emotions, while empathy is entirely that.

The chemistry and subjectivity and nuance of language aside, there is a clear handle for us as teachers. However large you see the distinction, they certainly have very different tones. Empathy is based in compassion, while sympathy is based in analysis.

UC Berkley continues clarifying:

“Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing.”

Ideally, empathy would be the net effect of experience, which in classrooms is both a matter of process and knowledge. Students would learn to empathize rather than be taught to empathize, as a symptom of what they know. Why this is important is a matter of implication and language. Teaching someone to feel what others feel and sit with emotions that aren’t their own couldn’t be any further from the inherent pattern of academics, which is always decidedly other. Teaching always begins with detachment—learn this skill or content strand that is now apart from you. Empathy is the opposite; it starts in the other, and finishes there without leaving.

In your classroom, there are dozens of natural sources of empathy. But what about authenticity? There’s nothing worse than ‘schoolifying’ something a child actually needs to know. So much of great teaching is about packaging content so that students recognize it as something they need to know and can actually use, rather than something to do because I said so and you don’t want a zero do you?

How to get a teacher's sympathyTeaching Without Empathy

One way to consider it? Without empathy, you’re teaching content instead of students. The concept of teachers as primarily responsible with content distribution is a dated one, but even seeking to ‘engage’ students misses the calling of teaching. To teach a child is to miss the child. You must understand them for who they are where they are, not for what you hope to prepare them for. “Giving knowledge” and “engaging students” in pursuit of pre-selected knowledge both are natural processes of formal education–and both make empathy hard to come by.

So then, where to start doing something different? How should you ‘teach it’? How will you know it when you see it? Is it different for different content areas, grade levels, genders, socioeconomic background, nationality, or other ‘thing’? Is this new-age mumbo jumbo, or a precise tool for a progressive teacher? How has the push of digital and social media into learning spaces emphasized the need for empathy–or naturally reduced it?

Is empathy a skill that can even be taught? A ‘competency’ you should bullet point in your lesson plan and pre-assess for? Or is it something more full and persistent and whole? “Expressing care for another is not an innate ability present more naturally in some people than others, but rather a skill that can be taught and nurtured through a supportive educational environment” (McLennan, 2008, p. 454). McLennan’s research suggests it is a skill.

But pushed further, it’s not hard to see that empathy is both a cause and effect of understanding, a kind of cognitive and emotional double helix that can create a bridge between classroom learning and ‘real life’ application. Getting started with empathy in the classroom is a matter of first grasping it as a concept, strategy, and residual effect of knowledge and perspective.

Heading over to tolerance.org (great resource, by the way) and ordering a bunch of posters and DVDs may be unnecessary–at least at first. Internalizing how the idea of empathy can reframe everything that happens in your classroom–your reason for teaching–is a shift that will suggest a world of possibility for teaching lessons, activities, and strategies.

See also Empathy Is An Elevated Form Of Understanding

More than anything else though, empathy is a tone. Broken into parts, it is about self, audience, and purpose. It helps students consider:

Who is ‘other’? Other how? How do we relate? What do we share? What do they need from me, and I from them? This leads to a staggering, and often troubling, question for all of us: What should I do with what I know?

Teaching empathy, then, is a matter of both affective and cognitive empathy–feeling with, alongside, and through others. This is a huge undertaking. It’s a process that resists labels–human genres of race, sexuality, class, and other grotesque aesthetics–and requires scrutiny. You have to exchange what you think you know for what you don’t. At it’s core, it’s a matter of seeing the world with fresh eyes unburdened with ‘belief.’ To get a person to look at another person as a matter of beautiful symmetry.

Want to teach empathy? Help students ask not “How am I unique?” but rather “How are we the same?”

image attribution flickr user BoudewijnBerends

A handwritten expression of sympathy acknowledges the loss and shows how much you care

by Louise Kramer, AARP, September 2, 2020 | Comments: 0

How to get a teacher's sympathy

En español | A condolence letter is a time-tested way to tell the bereaved that their loved one mattered to you, that you care. The trouble is, many of us don’t know what to write or worry that we will hit the wrong note.

In any situation, writing a sympathy note can be challenging. But it can be especially perplexing if you’re writing in regard to someone you’ve never met, such as a friend’s parent or your boss’s spouse.

That angst can lead to procrastination or, even worse, not extending your sympathies at all.

“The biggest mistake people make with a sympathy note or condolence card is not sending it,” says Daniel Post Senning, the great-great-grandson of famed etiquette expert Emily Post, and coauthor of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 19th edition. “Without question, it makes people feel acknowledged, supported, held up, connected to the community.”

Here are some expert tips on how to write a condolence letter.

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Snail mail is better than email

Emails pile up, and your message can quickly get buried, so it’s best to send a physical note.

If the person grieving is very close to you, start with a phone call and write the letter too. “It’s not an either/or. It’s a both,” says Senning. A letter “says I took the time to do this for you. I wanted you to have something I touched, that came from me, that has some of me in it.”

A store-bought sympathy card is fine

Craft your message on a blank sheet of stationary or a note card with a soothing image such as flowers or a nature scene. It’s fine to send a prewritten sympathy card and include a short personal note. “The simple act of sending the card lets your recipient know you care,” says Keely Chace, master writer at Hallmark and Hallmark.com.

Express your sympathy

Start the letter with the grieving person’s first name if you know them well, or put “Dear” before their name if your relationship is more distant, or you don’t know them at all. “Hi” is too casual. Then get right into the reason you’re writing. “It is perfectly safe and fine to say, “I’m really sorry your dad died,” says Amy Cunningham, a funeral director and former magazine writer who has studied the history of condolence letters and lectures on the topic. She prefers the word “died” to “passed away” or “transitioned.” Cunningham acknowledges that the word “died” can sound blunt to some, but notes that the language of death and dying is changing to be more straightforward. “If you’re writing to somebody who is New Age and into alternative medicine and mysticism it is OK to say ‘transitioned.’ You just have to know your audience,” she says.

Keep it short

Three or four lines are enough. After you acknowledge the loss, if you knew the deceased, tell the person who is grieving how you knew them, i.e., John and I worked together, or Susan and I were gym buddies. Then share a story, if you have one, about how they touched your life, and close it, Cunningham says.

“Any kind of anecdote of how you feel different because you knew them is super powerful,” she says.

Don’t say time will heal. “It is a cliché. It’s true that time is helpful but the new thinking on bereavement and loss is that the deaths that we grieve will be with us forever,” Cunningham says. End with a simple “with sympathy” or similar sentiment.

Look for inspiration from the deceased’s life

Iva Kravitz, a marketing consultant and avid note-writer, finds inspiration from the person’s funeral or memorial service. For a friend’s mother who lost her husband of 72 years, she learned from the Zoom memorial service that he raised his daughters and granddaughters to be assertive, strong, confident women. In her note, she observed that he was a quiet feminist. “I think she’ll appreciate that I had that realization about him,” Kravitz says.

Avoid negativity

A condolence card should uplift the person who experienced the loss. Don’t delve into troubled or complex relationships, or write about your own losses, Cunningham says. “If you had coffee with your friend and they were telling you their dad’s alcoholism had made their life a misery, my feeling is that you don’t need to throw it into your condolence letter even if you know that’s where they are.”

Feeling stuck? Seek online help

There are numerous free templates online for most every loss, whether a family member, boss, or even a pet. Hallmark provides suggested phrases for expressing sympathy. The Emily Post Institute gives advice for writing sympathy letters and examples. The Poetry Foundation has gathered together poems about consolation and grief. Cunningham says it’s nice to print out a poem and include it with your note.

It’s never too late

A week or two after the death is the ideal, but it’s never too late to write. “Oftentimes those little points of connection that happen later on really also have a lot of significance for someone. If someone has passed, their world still is really in upheaval and all of a sudden, they get a note from someone when it seems like everyone else has forgotten,” Senning says.

How to get a teacher's sympathy

Right near the core of education, just past tolerance and just short of affectionate connectivity, is the idea of empathy. University of California Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center explains empathy:

The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

What Empathy Is and Is Not

Empathy is often confused with sympathy, which is a pretty extraordinary error depending on how tightly wound you are about these things (and whose definitions you stand behind). Dr. Brené Brown offers a divisive take on the difference: “Empathy fuels connections, sympathy drives disconnection.”

This contrasts with Dictionary.com, which explains:

Both empathy and sympathy are feelings concerning other people. Sympathy is literally “feeling with” — compassion for or commiseration with another person. Empathy, by contrast, is literally “feeling into” — the ability to project one’s personality into another person and more fully understand that person.

Dictionary.com marks just a slight discrepancy between the two — sympathy requires less movement and merging of emotions, while empathy is entirely that.

The chemistry, subjectivity, and nuance of language aside, there is a clear handle for us as teachers. However large you see the distinction, they certainly have very different tones. Empathy is based in compassion, while sympathy is based in analysis.

Greater Good continues, clarifying:

Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing.

Ideally, empathy would be the net effect of experience, which in classrooms is a matter of both process and knowledge. Students would learn to empathize rather than be taught to empathize, as a symptom of what they know. Why this is important is a matter of implication and language. Teaching someone to feel what others feel and sit with emotions that aren’t their own couldn’t be any further from the inherent pattern of academics, which is always decidedly other. Teaching always begins with detachment — learn this skill or content strand that is now apart from you. Empathy is the opposite — it starts in the other, and finishes there without leaving.

Formal Education vs. True Connection

In your classroom, there are dozens of natural sources of empathy. But what about authenticity? There’s nothing worse than “schoolifying” something that a child actually needs to know. So much of great teaching is about packaging content so that students recognize it as something they need to know and can actually use, rather than something to do “because I said so, and you don’t want a zero, do you?”

Here’s one way to consider it. Without empathy, you’re teaching content instead of students. The concept of teachers as primarily responsible for content distribution is a dated one, but even seeking to “engage” students misses the calling of teaching. To teach a child is to miss that child. You must understand them for who they are and where they are, not for what you hope to prepare them for. “Giving knowledge” and “engaging students” in pursuit of pre-selected knowledge are both natural processes of formal education — and both make empathy hard to come by.

So where to start doing something different? How should you “teach it”? How will you know it when you see it? Is it different for different content areas, grade levels, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds, nationalities, or some other “thing”? Is this new-age mumbo jumbo, or a precise tool for a progressive teacher? How has the push of digital and social media into learning spaces emphasized the need for empathy — or naturally reduced it?

Is empathy a skill that can even be taught, a “competency” that you should bullet-point in your lesson plan, something that requires pre-assessment? Or is it something fuller, something more persistent and whole? Scotty McLennan, the Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University, suggests:

Expressing care for another is not an innate ability present more naturally in some people than others, but rather a skill that can be taught and nurtured through a supportive educational environment.

The Human Face of Understanding

But pushed farther, it’s not hard to see that empathy is both a cause and effect of understanding, a kind of cognitive and emotional double helix that can create a bridge between classroom learning and “real-life” application. Getting started with empathy in the classroom is a matter of first grasping it as a concept, strategy, and residual effect of knowledge and perspective. Heading over to Teaching Tolerance and ordering a bunch of posters and DVDs may be unnecessary — at least at first. Internalizing how the idea of empathy can reframe everything that happens in your classroom — your reason for teaching — is a shift that will suggest a world of possibility for teaching lessons, activities, and strategies.

More than anything else though, empathy is a tone. Broken into parts, it is about self, audience, and purpose. It helps students consider:

  • Who am I?
  • Who is “other”? And how? In what functions and degrees?
  • How do we relate? What do we share?
  • What do they need from me, and I from them?

This leads to a staggering and often troubling question for all of us: “What should I do with what I know?”

Sympathy is feeling bad for someone else because of something that has happened to them.

We often talk about it and feel sympathetic when someone has died, or something bad has happened, saying ‘Give them my sympathy’, or ‘I really feel for them’.

As a concept, sympathy is closely connected to both empathy and compassion. You may find our pages: What it Empathy? and Compassion useful too.

Sympathy, Empathy and Compassion

What is the distinction between sympathy, empathy and compassion? The words are often used interchangeably, but they do have important differences.

Some Working Definitions

sympathy n. power of entering into another’s feelings or mind: … compassion

empathy n. the power of entering into another’s personality and imaginatively experiencing his experiences.

compassion n. fellow-feeling, or sorrow for the sufferings of another

Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition

These definitions, however, do not necessarily help to establish the difference. It may be helpful to look at the origin of the words.

Sympathy comes from the Greek syn, meaning with and pathos, or suffering.

Compassion is from the Latin com, meaning with, and passus, to suffer.

In other words, sympathy and compassion have exactly the same root, but in different languages.

Empathy also comes from the Greek, from en meaning in, and pathos, again for suffering. There is, therefore, a much stronger sense of experience in empathy.

Sympathy or compassion is feeling for the other person, empathy is experiencing what they experience, as if you were that person, albeit through the imagination.

As our page on Compassion argues, however, there has come to be an element of action in the use of the word compassion which is lacking from sympathy or empathy.

A feeling of compassion, then, usually results in some action, perhaps donating money or time. Sympathy tends to begin and end with fellow-feeling, or ‘expressing your sympathy’.

Causes of Sympathy

For people to experience sympathy towards someone else, several elements are necessary:

You must be paying attention to the other person.

Being distracted limits our ability to feel sympathy.

The other person must seem in need in some way.

Our perceptions of the level of need will determine the level of sympathy. For example, someone with a graze on their knee will get less sympathy than someone else with a broken leg.

We are also much more likely to be sympathetic towards someone who appears to have done nothing to ‘earn’ their misfortune.

The child who falls while running towards a parent will get more sympathy than the one who was doing something that they had been specifically told not to do, and has fallen as a result.

Sympathy in Healthcare

The tendency to feel more sympathy towards those who did not ‘deserve’ their problems can be a major problem for healthcare workers. There is a tendency to feel less sympathy to those suffering from ‘lifestyle’ diseases, such as diabetes resulting from obesity, or lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, than those who have contracted similar diseases with no obvious cause.

Healthcare workers, and others, need to fight against this tendency, because we are all human, and all equally deserving of care and support during difficult times.

The level of sympathy is also likely to be affected by the specific circumstances.

We are generally more likely to be more sympathetic towards someone who is geographically closer than someone on the other side of the world. This is spatial proximity.

We are also more sympathetic towards people who are more like us. This is referred to as social proximity.

Furthermore, we are also more likely to be sympathetic if we have experienced the same situation personally and found it difficult. However, ongoing exposure to the same or a similar situation will dampen sympathy.

For example, the first time we see pictures or hear about an earthquake, we may be motivated to donate money to relieve suffering. If, however, there is another earthquake elsewhere a few days later, we may feel less sympathetic, a situation sometimes referred to as compassion fatigue.

Showing Sympathy

Because sympathy is indelibly linked to bad experiences, for example, the death of a family member, it is often appropriate to show your sympathy with someone else.

While this can seem like a formality, the idea is to help the other person to feel better, by showing that you understand that they are having a bad time, and may need some help.

Sympathy may be expressed either verbally or non-verbally.

Examples of sympathy expressed verbally include:

  • Speaking to someone to say how sorry you are about their situation; and
  • Sending a card when someone has been bereaved.

Examples of sympathy expressed non-verbally include:

  • Patting someone on the shoulder at a funeral;
  • Putting a hand on someone’s arm when they tell you their bad news; and
  • Dropping your tone of voice when you speak.

Showing Sympathy Appropriately – Ring Theory

A few years ago, psychologist Susan Silk and mediator Barry Goodman devised a simple diagram to help people to respond appropriately to grief, affliction or problems in their own and other people’s lives. They called it Ring Theory.

The idea is simple. Imagine a series of concentric circles. In the middle circle is the person or people who are most directly affected by the trauma. In the next circle are their direct family and closest friends. Outside them are more distant family and friends, then acquaintances and so on. You can have as many circles as you need.

The person at the centre of the circle can say what they like to anyone. They can vent at any time, or in any way. Those beyond that, however, can only vent OUTWARDS. Inwards, they need to express sympathy and provide comfort.

The rule is simple: Comfort In, Dump Out.

How to get a teacher's sympathy

If you stick to that rule, you will be able to provide sympathy effectively, and also vent your concerns in an appropriate way, to those who can best help you to deal with them.

Sympathy is innate, but it is also learned

Children as young as 12 months old have been observed to show sympathetic behaviour, for example, giving their parents a toy without being prompted, or crying when another baby cries. These are very basic sympathetic responses. Some children are inherently more social and sympathetic.

However, as children learn and develop, their ability to feel sympathy also develops as they learn from their parents and others around them. Given that adolescents are often described as exhibiting selfish behaviour, it seems likely that ability to sympathise continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescent, and probably into adulthood as well.

This means that it is possible to develop your ability to feel and express sympathy even as an adult.