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Sympathy and Empathy

An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To consider the meanings of sympathy and empathy.

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a large toy crane – this could be constructed from a building kit such as Lego, if a toy is not available.
  • You will need a box that is large enough for the crane to fit inside, but small enough to stop it being operated successfully.
  • You will also need a similar sized box to use as a stand for the crane, and an object for the crane to pick up.


  1. Reach inside the box, pick up the crane and show it to the students. Pick up the object and explain that you are going to use the crane to pick up this object.

  2. Put the crane and the object back in the box and attempt to use the crane to pick up the object – this will be impossible while the crane is in the box.

  3. When you have established that the crane cannot carry out its function from inside the box, remove the crane and place it on top of the second box. From here, use the crane to pick up the object.

  4. Point out that, when the crane was very close to the object, it could not be any help. However, when the crane was moved away, it had enough room to ‘help’.

  5. Ask the students to imagine that each of them is the crane and the object is one of their friends. The first box represents a situation in which the friend has found themselves, where they are in need of help. It may be that the friend is worried about something in their family, or about their sexuality, or they have been offered and maybe accepted illegal drugs. It may be that they have lied to another friend and they feel they have no place to turn. (If possible, give examples that are pertinent to situations within the school.)

    Ask the students to think about the question, 'What would you do?'

  6. Point out that we may think that the most helpful thing we can do for our friend is to jump right into the problem with them. To help them know that they are heard, that they are not alone, that they can talk to someone and feel trust and some kind of safety. All these things are important, but although your friend might feel better because you care, the problem is still there. In fact, it could be that you are so involved that now there are two people who feel all the weight of the problem. You got in the box - got in the hole - with your friend, but because of your close involvement, you couldn’t help successfully.

  7. Feeling sorry for someone when they have a problem or find themselves in some kind of difficulty is called ‘sympathy’.

  8. A word that is closely linked to ‘sympathy’ is ‘empathy’. ‘Empathy’ is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

  9. The crane didn’t work when it was too close to the object. It worked better when it was in a position where it had space to function correctly. In the same way, when a friend is in a difficult situation, we need to allow for some space if we are to be at our most helpful. If we do this, our friends will know that they are cared about, but we will be in a better position to be useful.

Time for reflection

Do you know someone who is struggling at the present time?
Do you have a friend who is going through some difficulties?

Take a moment to imagine yourself in their situation.
How do you think you would feel if you were facing the same problems or difficulties?

How can you show love and care while giving people the space to work their way through situations?

Dear God,
Thank you that we are made to enjoy the friendship of other people.
Thank you for the gifts of love and caring.
In your love, give us grace to be true friends, one to another.
Help us to be there to support and care for our friends.
Please give us the wisdom to know how to react when those we care about face problems and difficulties.

Publication date: May 2020   (Vol.22 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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