What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?
There is a very popular speaker, a social worker, by the name of Brene Brown, who talks about empathy versus sympathy. This is something we need to be aware of as therapists so that we are modeling empathy to others versus sympathy. Empathy helps to understand the feelings another person might be having. It fuels that connection between people and offers a response. Whereas sympathy is pity and is when people offer a lot of solutions rather than listening to understand.
A lot of times people will say empathy is when someone has fallen into a hole and you say, "Hey, I'm going to get a ladder. I'm going to come down into that hole and I'm going to help you out." Whereas sympathy is walking by the hole, seeing the person down there, and saying, "Ooh, that's a bad situation to be in. You should think about doing X." They are offering a solution to get out. But that's not very helpful and it doesn't feed into a connection with someone else.
You can express empathy, by saying something like, "I see that you're in a bad situation or tough situation. I can help you by…," and give specific examples of how you can help. It can be really hard for parents and families to know what they need, so giving specific examples of how you can be of assistance can be really helpful in these situations.
Another way to express empathy is simply saying, "I'm with you. I'm here. I can listen." Be okay with just listening. “I can't imagine what you're going through but I'm here. I'm here to help.” Be careful saying that you know what someone's going through. Instead, say, "I have no idea what you're going through right now."
Some statements to avoid that show sympathy include, “Oh, I'm sorry. It's too bad you're in that situation," or “You just need to do X,” which are not helpful. Before offering a solution, think about asking, "Can I give you an idea that I was thinking of? Are you open to me helping you right now? Or do you just need me to listen?" Sometimes asking those questions first is hard for us to do because we're so used to giving solutions to things.
This Ask the Expert is an excerpt from the course, Communicating in Difficult Situations.