Empathy v Sympathy“Make your audience care.” It’s an often repeated tenet of instructional design and it sounds great in theory. If you can make your audience care about the material they will engage more deeply with the content and retain it longer. Just saying “make your audience care” is not the whole story though. While many designers will spend time trying to figure out how to make people care, they won’t spend any time figuring out what “kind” of caring they want to elicit, and, yes, there is more than one. I present to you the difference between two major forms of caring, sympathy and empathy.

The two words are often confused, and for good reason, since their definitions are so similar. They both come from the root “path” meaning “feeling.” Their difference is actually quite subtle. In simplistic terms, sympathy involves feeling things for someone while empathy means feeling things with someone. For example, when another instructional designer is up against the wall and has numerous assignments due at the end of the week, I empathize with them since I’ve been there myself. I understand how they are feeling and can vicariously feel those emotions as well. If, on the other hand, someone from the sales team mentioned a particularly stressful sale, I would have less frame of reference. I can still feel sympathy that he or she is going through a difficult time, but I would have a harder time commiserating since the specific situation doesn’t directly relate to my personal experiences.

So how does knowing this help you?

Sympathy and empathy are both powerful versions of the same emotion. The contexts in which they should be used are very different. If you goal is to train skills or teach concepts that are directly relevant to a person, then evoking empathy would be the correct tactic. You want that person to put him or herself into the situation and connect through similar experiences. For example, I can relate the importance of new safety guidelines by putting characters into the same dangerous situations the learners might find themselves in. If, instead, your goal is awareness or fundraising, you will want to go with sympathy. For instance, most people probably don’t have the experiences necessary to truly understand the horrors of war. If you were trying to raise money for wounded veterans it would make more sense to try and build sympathy in your audience rather than empathy.

Incorrectly using empathy over sympathy, or vice-versa, can limit the efficacy of your eLearning program. By understanding the difference and consciously choosing which to use, you will be on your way to tailoring learning experiences to your audience.

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