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Understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy

So what is empathy? How does it differ from sympathy? How important is it? Moreover, how can we show empathy to patients?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Sympathy is similar and easy to confuse, but not half as useful- sympathy is the feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else.

Think of yourself by the side of a swimming pool. There is someone in there, drowning. If you were to show them sympathy, you would involve yourself, telling them about a time when you were also drowning. You make it about yourself as an individual – and then you’re both drowning and nobody is on poolside to help. You express sympathy. If you were to share empathy, think of yourself as throwing them a life-ring. You are understanding their problem and accepting that it is an issue for them, but not making the situation about you. You stand outside of the issue as a source of comfort.

What’s the difference between showing sympathy and empathy?

Sympathy and empathy
What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy?

Both empathy and sympathy can be useful tools- don’t we all want to know someone else has been where we have been? But sympathy can become patronising, and that’s something we wish to avoid. Expressing sympathy creates a divide between you and the other person- that you are lucky, you have come past the problem, but they are unlucky and still struggling. ‘I’m sorry you feel like that’ is a statement that isolates someone. You’re pitying them, not providing a sense of support. If you were to show empathy, perhaps you could say ‘Many people struggle with this issue, you’re not alone.’ This gives the other person a sense of companionship, that they are not the only one and that there is hope.

Empathy occurs in the here and now. You show empathy by immersing yourself in another person’s world, without making yourself into them – you retain your sense of self and know that you yourself are actually outside of the problem. This enables you to be helpful instead of getting caught up in the issue. Advice is an enemy of empathy in some cases- you want to stay in their world, not make yourself feel better.

Why is empathy important in Medicine?

In medicine, not showing empathy means we would never truly understand our patients and their motivations. We would ignore what makes our patients individuals and force our own agendas on them – we could feel sorry for them, but that’s not productive and doesn’t help the patient feel understood or empowered to make decisions about their health. Sympathy alienates patients and makes the doctor-patient relationship one-sided, unfriendly and less trustworthy.

A patient who is shown empathy is more likely to feel emotionally connected to their doctor, and this helps them to improve their health. A patient who feels understood is more likely to disclose important information that would entirely change a diagnosis or treatment. They’re also more likely to follow the advice and treatment regime set out by their doctor. You’re much more likely to listen to and feel comfortable with a doctor you feel has truly understood your situation, than someone who hasn’t acknowledged that you are an individual and your health needs are unique to you.

You can show empathy by reflecting the tone and language the other person is using. Avoid using ‘I’ statements and truly listen to what the other person is saying. Empathy allows us to treat our patients with compassion, fostering strong relationships that are mutually beneficial for the patient and the doctor. It requires listening, kindness and time taken to truly understand the whole patient and their life. It enables our patients to feel supported and understood during some of the most stressful periods in their lives.

Words: Katie Hodgkinson

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