Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. Sympathy means feeling pity or sorry for someone else. It can be easy to get confused between the two concepts. However, sympathy isn’t as useful in Medicine.
Both sympathy and empathy can be useful tools – but sympathy is more surface-level and can become patronising, which is something that medical professionals wish to avoid. Expressing sympathy can create a divide between you and the other person.
“I’m sorry you feel like that” is a statement that isolates someone. You’re pitying them, not providing a sense of support. To show empathy instead, you could say “Many people struggle with this issue, so you aren’t alone.” This gives the other person a sense that they are not the only one going through this and there is hope.
Advice can be an enemy of empathy in some cases. It’s about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand what they are feeling – not about going into problem solving mode and offering unsolicited advice.
Think of yourself by the side of a swimming pool. There is someone in there, drowning.
If you were to express sympathy, you would involve yourself, telling them about a time when you were also drowning. You make it about yourself as an individual.
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.
To use a more everyday example, imagine that another student (or a co-worker) confides in you that they are struggling to keep up with their work. A sympathetic response might be to say “I’m sorry to hear that” and give them advice as to how they can be more productive. An empathetic response would be to have a deeper conversation to try and get to the root of why they are struggling. The second approach is more likely to be effective.
In general, people find it easier to sympathise than to empathise. This is because sympathy is more surface-level.
If someone is grieving, anyone can express sympathy by saying “I’m sorry for your loss” and feel bad for them. Empathy is a rarer quality and some people are more empathetic than others. If you aren’t the most naturally empathetic person, it is a skill that can be learned and developed over time if you make the effort.
In Medicine, without empathy we would never truly understand patients and their motivations. We would ignore what makes patients individuals and force our own agendas onto them. We could feel sorry for them, but that isn’t productive and doesn’t help the patient to feel understood or empowered. Sympathy can alienate patients and make 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 therefore more likely to disclose important information that could completely change a diagnosis or treatment. They’re also more likely to follow the advice and treatment regime set out by their Doctor. After all, a patient is much more likely to listen to and feel comfortable with a Doctor whom they feel has truly understood their situation.
Empathy allows us to treat patients with compassion, fostering strong relationships that are mutually beneficial for the patient and the Doctor. It enables patients to feel supported and understood during some of the most stressful periods in their lives.
You can show empathy by reflecting the tone and language that the other person is using. Avoid using ‘I’ statements, truly listen to what the other person is saying, and put yourself in their shoes.
In a Medical School interview, you might be given a role play scenario where you are playing the role of a medical professional and need to have a difficult conversation with another person (played by an actor). You might need to break bad news to a patient, or speak to a colleague about a problem they are having that is affecting their work. In situations like this, it is vital to demonstrate emotional intelligence and interviewers will be looking out for empathy.
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