Privileged glimpses 10: Sympathy isn’t usually helpful

This series of blog posts first appeared a few years ago on a now defunct blog called ‘Care Training’. It was inspired by the training maxim of ‘making the unconscious conscious’. It is intended to take what really ought to be the most basic principles of health and social care and put them down on paper. The series isn’t only an exercise in stating the obvious though whatever the title might suggest. It’s actually intended as a philosophical foundation manual for workers and informal carers to help them get their care ‘on track’ and then to keep it that way.

I spoke with a colleague recently about a difficult situation she had to deal with at home. It doesn’t matter what the situation was. It’s enough to say that this lady considered that she was being treated unfairly and unreasonably by a family member. So far as I could tell (having heard only one side of the story) I’m inclined to agree.

The temptation was to sympathise with her. That often feels like the most human, most compassionate response to another person in distress. It’s how we show that we care, how we demonstrate understanding and, perhaps most importantly, it maintains rapport. When we sympathise with people we usually find ourselves ‘on their wavelength’ and that feels good.

Unfortunately though, however good it may feel sympathy is far from positive. In reality it’s usually very destructive. Here’s why….

When I sympathise with you I’m really telling you what you already want to hear. I’m reaffirming what you already think:

Sympathy empathy“Yes it is awful and you’re quite right to feel that bad about it.”

Sympathy locks us into the same emotions and beliefs as the other person and that’s not a good place to be. I can’t help you to move on and solve problems if I’m wearing the same emotional blinkers as you.

Of course, it is true that people really do have a right to feel bad when things don’t turn out as they would like them to. But it is also true that you don’t have to feel bad as well. You’re not obliged to join in.

If you resist the urge to sympathise you can keep a clear head without risking being drawn into the ‘doom and gloom’ thinking of the other person. This means that you will be free to explore other explanations and solutions. You can problem-solve and you can encourage others to do the same.

Sympathy acknowledges that people are right to feel bad and that traps them:

“Oh poor you. I’d feel awful if that happened to me.”

Empathy is a much, much more helpful proposition. Empathy acknowledges that people have a right to feel as badly as they want to but then it asks:

“But why would you want to?”

Empathy acknowledges and validates problems and emotions but then moves on to find solutions. Sympathy merely validates distress but offers no help to overcome it. In fact sympathy risks prolonging distress.

Don’t ‘do sympathy’.’ Do empathy’ instead.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Thank you for this blog, it was just what I needed to read this morning.

    I have now also read your other care blogs. You mention not calling it ‘support’. I agree but have you any suggestions about what we do say? NB a I am a ‘support worker’. I also don’t like the term ‘service user’!

    Deborah

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

    1. The suggestion is to be specific. ‘Support’ is a vague term. What we need is a description of what we intend to do – not a general, meaningless label.

      Re the term ‘service-user’, I find that there is no term that everyone accepts.

      Therefore, with no way to get the terminology ‘right’ for everyone I find myself able only to acknowledge that some people will object and carry on anyway. Whatever term I use someone will object.

      Like

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