Empathy v Sympathy

Empathy Two blue wooden chairs sitting on the sand facing out to seaThe words “empathy” and “sympathy” are often used interchangeably and yet their actual meanings are very different.  The problem comes when people try to explain that difference.  I use empathy all the time in my work but I try not to use sympathy at all.  There is nothing at all wrong with showing sympathy but empathy requires a greater level of understanding – let me try to explain.

Earlier this week I was talking to a friend who had hurt her back – she was having difficulty bending, lifting, and even getting dressed.  I was less than helpful.

My first response was to say “oh no, poor you”, which is ok as sympathy goes (although a bit patronising and slightly tinged with pity).  But then I followed it up with the dreaded “I twinged my back this morning too.”  I was a bit cross with myself and couldn’t quite work out why I had said it – the conversation was not about me.

On reflection I realised that I was offering a fairly common (but not entirely helpful) type of sympathy.  I was trying to understand by putting myself in her position – in this instance I had twinged my back and it was, fleetingly, very painful so I was, somewhat clumsily, saying “I have experienced your pain and I understand.”  I was looking inside myself for understanding of her situation.

But the truth is I haven’t experienced her pain, I have experienced mine.  If I was to show empathy rather than sympathy I would have to try to understand what it is like to be her in her particular situation, only then could I truly understand.  This also applies to both positive and negative emotions.

Imagine a situation where a friend’s father has died.

Sympathy requires you to understand that your friend might feel sad and bereft.  You express your sorrow for her, maybe hug her and allow her to cry on your shoulder.  This is sympathy at its best and is a loving and appropriate way of responding.  Sympathy stems, in part, from understanding how people might generally feel in such a situation and acting accordingly.

Empathy needs a deeper level of understanding.  It requires you to understand what it is like to be this particular person in this particular situation and not to make assumptions – not everyone is sad when a parent dies, it can often be a confusing time full of mixed emotions; guilt, anger, sadness, relief etc.  It requires you to listen deeply and to feel deeply too.  If you are being empathetic you will feel sad/confused etc. with your friend not for her.

Empathy is not about cheering someone up or helping them to feel better, it is simply about joining them in their world and working hard to understand and share that experience and, in some instances, holding their hand until they feel ready to move.  Quite frankly, it is one of the greatest gifts you can give to someone who is struggling.

So, next time you are tempted to say “I know how you feel”, remember that you probably don’t.  If you don’t know what to say try listening instead of talking.  And yes, I will be taking a big, healthy dose of my own medicine this week.

This is the third blog in a series about the Core Conditions of Counselling and follows on from earlier articles about Congruence and Unconditional Positive Regard.

Congruence – Why being Genuine Matters

Back at the beginning of this journey I explained why I chose the name Yellow Dot.  In it I talked about Rogers’ Core Conditions; Congruence, Unconditional Positive Regard and Empathy.  This is the first of three pieces I will write to expand on those concepts – starting with congruence.

In a therapeutic sense to be congruent is to be genuine, to be consistent and honest inside and outside the relationship.  It is the counsellor’s job to be congruent at all times rather than to put on the cloak or mantel of “a professional therapist”.  By being genuine you allow the client to see you and trust you and, therefore, to risk being open with you.

Of course a therapist has to behave professionally too, I have trained and qualified as a counsellor and a coach, I strive to use the skills carefully and appropriately and I adhere to a code of ethics.  At a behaviour level counselling is what I do, in terms of congruence a counsellor is who I am.  “Being” a counsellor (as opposed to just “doing” counselling) stems from believing completely in the Core Conditions and incorporating them into all aspects of my life.  It is precisely because I hold these conditions as a core belief that I also bring them into my coaching and training work too.

So, perhaps an example would help.

Some years ago I worked with a client (X) who was experiencing difficulty in building and maintaining relationships.  X was lonely and friendless and unhappy.  Whilst working with X I found that my attention kept drifting – not a good thing in a counselling relationship but, frankly, I found X to be quite boring.
I had a choice.  I could pretend not to find X boring and just focus more or I could be congruent and share these feelings.  The general rule is that any persistent feelings should be shared and, as these feelings persisted over time, my choice was already made.  If I found X to be dull, the chances were that other people did too and this was probably the main cause of X’s loneliness. 
I reflected on why I found X boring and tried to analyse the specific behaviours so that I could give some helpful, supportive feedback.  X took the feedback really well (partly because I also work with Unconditional Positive Regard and Empathy) and we were able to work together to improve things.

Congruence is not just for counsellors, it is an essential part of any meaningful relationship whether that is personal or professional.  We can only hide behind a facade for a short time before the cracks begin to appear.  A friend once (half jokingly) commented that she wanted to sue her husband under the Trades Descriptions Act because she thought she was marrying someone who loved participating in sports (the early part of their relationship was spent surfing and windsailing)  but it turned out that he mostly liked watching sport on TV – preferably in the pub.

Being congruent can be a risk.  By being open and genuine we risk hurting people and we risk being hurt in return.  This is why the Core Conditions always need to be used in conjunction with each other rather than in isolation.  Demonstrating empathy stops congruence from being blunt.  Showing Unconditional Positive Regard ensures you always treat the other person with respect.

If you would like to work with someone who will always strive to be open and genuine, who will always be honest with you and who only has your best interests at heart, please get in touch.  The first session is always free of charge.


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