Sympathetic to Empathy

For as long as I’ve been socially aware, I’ve struggled to know just how much of myself I should share with others. I’ve never had trouble playing the role of listening ear or shoulder to cry on, but when it comes time in the give and take of conversation, I can’t always balance the ability to respond empathetically with the need to express sympathy. My need for validation of shared experience drives me to show that I understand what someone is going through because I’ve been there in some way. But at the same time, I want the people I care about to know that I see their problems as unique to them and that I understand their need for support that isn’t divided.

The thing is, I never really understood what I was doing until recently reading a fresh take on the need for empathy verses sympathy in dealing with others. Especially others that may be relying on someone for support and strength in a particular situation. In addition to my budding midwifery education, I decided not long ago to pursue training as a Labor Doula to gain experience in the childbirth field from an angle of emotional and physical support. In addition to partnering with the Doula from my own recent labor, I enrolled in a course from Childbirth International, and part of the very practical education includes a communication assignment.

In the written study material for this assignment, sympathy is defined as “sharing of another’s feelings”, and empathy is defined as the “ability to identify with a person”. They sound similar, but in conversation, sympathy involves a whole lot more “I”s and statements of solidarity, whereas statements of empathy utilize “you” in ways that make a person sound like a licensed therapist, i.e. “It sounds like you’re feeling angry about what she said to you”. You know, stating the obvious and all that. Doesn’t sound like the better or more natural choice in a conversation, does it?

That’s what I thought at first. So much better to help someone feel that you truly understand rather than dole out useless terms of unquestionable observation. Right? Until I read this suggested article, by self help author Andrew LeCompte. In it, he describes what he calls “true empathy” and how we can utilize our listening and feedback skills to help others realize their full potential by taking more ownership for their choices, actions and even feelings. Suddenly, empathy isn’t just a way to identify what someone is struggling with, it’s a method of “listening for the other person’s positive intention or ‘hope'”. The article describes a scenario where one person’s reaction to a situation can change based on their perception of an outcome, rather than the actions of others. The author asserts that WE determine our reaction based on our hopes and intentions, and that in empathetic conversation, we can help each other to see the positive light of any situation and move toward it.

If this is true, then in our conversations with others we are in a position to either reinforce what their intial reactive feeling (snap judgment) toward a person or situation is, OR we can facilitate a way for them to see the positive potential and how they might go about making it a reality.

The author also points out that, “Hopes are the universal positive qualities and values that motivate our behavior….An amazing thing happens when we help another person get in touch with their motivating hope—they become conscious. The nature of their thinking shifts away from blaming people and events. Instead their thinking becomes positive. They think about the good things they want and begin to think about how to bring them about.” By more actively using our responses in conversation, we can help others to be more aware of their intentions. By raising their awareness, we can help others to see that initial judgements may have set them on the path to viewing a situation from a limited angle. We all have a way of self-reinforcing the reality that we assume is true by looking for evidence to back up our perspective, and at the same time ignoring indicators or facts that prove otherwise.

So how do we use true empathy to help others? Aside from a practical example in the article to show how this could work, LeCompte says we must “ask them to clarify what they are hoping for” rather than reinforce negative judgements. Not always easy, and not something we may be in the habit of doing with friends and family, much less co-workers. But in relationships and interactions where it is vital that the person feel supported making a positive change or decision, we can make all the difference in how we choose to respond.

How do you usually respond to other people sharing frustration, grief, or other negative emotions? Do you tend to be sympathetic or empathetic? Do you think there is a place for both? Do you feel a need to respond differently to those you care about after reading the article? How does “true empathy” help us to encourage others to make positive changes in their lives and worldview? How can this shift in perspective help us to motivate others on the path to enlightenment or even a feminist awakening? Do you see a pattern in the way you comment on blogs? Is it usually sympathetic or empathetic, or maybe a mix of both?


Corktree is exploring life and spirituality in new ways and new environments while studying midwifery, reiki, yoga, homeopathy, herbology and evolutionary nutrition. She has 3 daughters and one son, which add up to what now feels like an enormous family of 6.

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23 Responses

  1. MB says:

    Excellent insights. In my life there are people who understand my distresses and people who understand my hopes. Both are helpful, but the ones who I know who understand my hopes and whose conversations and gentle questions lead me to articulate them more clearly are the ones who I feel understand me best.

    That’s good for me to think about.

    • Corktree says:

      “In my life there are people who understand my distresses and people who understand my hopes.” This is a great thing to be aware of. And I love what you say about feeling understood more by those who lead you to your hopes. I’ve been thinking about how truly good counselors and therapists don’t act like they can fix people’s problems, but are very good at helping their patients to talk through things themselves. I always see things more clearly after just saying it out loud, so I really appreciate the types of friends that let me do that.

      Thanks for contributing!

  2. Jessawhy says:

    This is brilliant. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this issue.
    I’m guilty of listening with an ear for how I can relate. I usually don’t notice until later, but if someone says, “My foot is hurting.” I’ll say, “Oh, I”m sorry. My foot hurt once. . . ” and then proceed to tell a story.
    It’s ridiculous. I’m working on keeping my own stories out of empathy and sympathy.

    I especially like the idea of focusing on someone’s hopes. I’ll have to come up with a few different phrases that mean the same thing so people don’t catch me on this crusade 🙂

    I’m going to try this today and I’ll tell you how it goes!

    • Corktree says:

      I respond that way a lot too, and it’s something I’ve been more aware of since reading the material. I still don’t always hold back my own personal stories, because I still think they are important in some cases, but I’m learning to look for ways to help and allow people to get where they need to be with a situation by responding more purposefully.

      I do hope you’ll share if you have any experiences with trying this!

  3. Deborah says:

    I use the “observation” response with my students all the time, and it really does help them feel heard and allow us to get past initial defenses to a more productive conversation. Such as yesterday when a boy lost it during PE and I was left to clean up . . . Starting with “I bet it was frustrating when you got out” and “Sounds like the coaches call felt unfair to you” gave him a release valve.

    I am so excited that you are starting doula training! I didn’t realize — but it makes perfect sense — that some counseling psych training would be part of the overall program 🙂 . . . talk about helping people in a vulnerable moment!

    • Corktree says:

      I can see how knowing this type of response would be very helpful as an educator. That’s probably why it seemed weird to me at first, because it seems like a way of conversing that only professionals would use so it doesn’t sound casual enough to me for conversations with friends. And I suppose as a doula and midwife I’ll be using it in a professional capacity, but I’m really beginning to see how this can be used to help in everything from church discussions to friendly chats. We could all use a little more intention in our lives 🙂

      • Stella says:

        I’m with Deborah on this. It’s almost my conditioned, politically correct response to everyone–being a teacher makes you pretty politically correct–however, I think it also makes me empathetic to a point. I have a hard time sympathizing for the same things (or mistakes) in a person’s life again and again. I get exhausted by that after awhile.

  4. Caroline says:

    So interesting! I had never really understood the difference between sympathy and empathy before. I think I probably tend to do more sympathy — not that I generally launch into my own stories when I listen to people. I’m not a self confident enough story teller to do that. 🙂 But I do a lot “How awful!” “That’s so terrible!” “What a loser!” kind of responses.

    But having read your post, I’m going to be more mindful of showing that I am really hearing the other person and also of trying to gently guide the conversation back to possibilities or hopes.

    • Corktree says:

      Before I read the material for my assignment, there’s no way I could have defined the two as separate. I mean I knew they were different, but I always mixed up the meaning.

      I really think that if we as feminists learn to use this type of response in conversations about the issues that are near and dear to us (which will certainly be heated on one side or another) that we may help other’s to see our side of things better because we in turn are showing willingness to adopt their perspective.

      This actually came up in our RS lesson on Sunday. Someone said how important it was to not judge or act based on differences of opinion or lifestyle, and I took it a step further and suggested that we not only reserve judgment and persecution, but that we try to see from the point of view of others. It was taken quite well!

  5. Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing the link to LeCompte’s article.

    I’m a terrible listener, I always want to jump in and tell the speaker how to solve her problem. I’ve never thought listening to people whine was helpful, but LeCompte’s advice to listen “for the other person’s positive intention or ‘hope’” and guide them toward thinking through solutions to their own situation makes sense.

    • Corktree says:

      I used to be a terrible listener (still am with family sometimes) because I had to fight so hard not to jump in with my own information or opinion. But I’ve consciously worked on it for MANY years. I still have to *literally* bite my tongue until someone stops speaking occasionally, but I’m much better now than I was.

  6. Rachel says:

    “They sound similar, but in conversation, sympathy involves a whole lot more “I”s and statements of solidarity, whereas statements of empathy utilize “you” in ways that make a person sound like a licensed therapist, i.e. “It sounds like you’re feeling angry about what she said to you”. You know, stating the obvious and all that.”
    Had to laugh–If that were all I got out of a therapist, I’d be tempted to ask for my money back.
    What makes for a good therapist, regardless of theoretical orientation, is that the patient/client feels understood. For the most part, I find it easy to do, to communicate I understand; I get it. And I have hope we can make things better. However, figuring out how to ‘join’ the other person takes work sometimes, either because I don’t feel immediately sympathetic (husband is cheating on spouse and comes to therapy seeing some sort of absolution), or because the situation seems completely hopeless/overwhelming, etc.
    (I actually wrote my master’s thesis on hope and how it plays out in the therapeutic relationship, btw.)
    I really liked your last question about how we comment on blogs. I know I sit about half and half. If people don’t know I’m a therapist, I come off as compassionate and helpful and insightful. If they do, then do people think they’re being therapized? 🙂

    • Corktree says:

      Thank you for commenting and for the extra insight into how to use these types of responses in a professional setting. I hope I didn’t come off as disparaging of therapists. :/ I’ve had some that talked like that the WHOLE session (and I did sorta want my money back 😉 ), and some that I did feel understood by, but I’m not truly sure what the difference was.

      And in blog comments I always go back and forth between sharing how I relate to the post and just showing support and that I “heard” what the person wrote. I’m still not sure which is better, but I know that I feel like a loud mouth sometimes 🙂

  7. aerin says:

    Thanks for this post and the article. Very thought-provoking.

    Focusing on hope can work in many situations. With that said, I think it is important sometimes to allow a person to feel everything they are feeling, including the anger, fear and sadness. Sometimes I get frustrated by “the power of positive thinking” type philosophies (we could change our lives completely if we could only change our thinking). I don’t know that this is what the article suggested, it just has some parts that remind me of that philosophy.

    While it is true that there is often new perspective to be gained, sometimes life is hard, sometimes very hard. And it does no one any good (in my opinion) to be in denial. I think the expression of feelings is important in this process, even negative feelings or perspective.

    • Corktree says:

      That is a good point. I don’t think the article is saying to wash over the negative emotions, and I do think they have a place. But I still think we can be a force for good in the lives of those that are struggling by helping them to see what they want or what’s real.

      The part I really liked about the article was about owning our feelings and understanding the true source of them. Other people and things don’t CAUSE our negative emotions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a place and that choosing to explore them is bad. I think that’s important to remember.

  8. EmilyCC says:

    A fascinating post and article…It feels strange stating the obvious in a friend or family relationship, but it makes sense. And, at the very least, it could clear up some misconceptions.

  9. Corktree says:

    That’s what I thought too – good prevention for my tendancy to assume. 🙂

  10. Whoa-man says:

    Fantastic points. I think empathy is one of the most important and underrated virtues. I wish it was one of the Young Women themes.

    In my research empathy is closely linked with emotional intelligence and the ability to read, understand, and subsequently share someone elses’ emotional state. I love that idea. I’m not just feeling bad for someone who has experienced a loss, but rather actually, “mourning with those who mourn.” I can think of no more visceral and immediate empathy than in childbirth settings and with protective mothering instincts. Does that make us more empathetic? Is that bad to even ask? Does it even matter?

    Thanks for talking about this. I think it is so important.

    • Corktree says:

      The whole “mourning with those that mourn” is a very interesting aspect of this. Someone else commented to me that suffering along with others by empathizing only increases the amount of suffering in the world, which I agree with. But there has to be a way to let other people feel validated and understood while remaining a source of strength and perspective for them. I do think that seeing from their perspective is an invaluable part of this interaction, and that knowing how we would feel in their shoes is vital, but I love that the focus of the article is how we can move toward positive intention while recognizing and acknowledging the trial and our reaction to it.

      In childbirth support I see this as especially important as one can become overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience itself, whether you’re the one laboring or not, and it’s important to know where that person is coming from (for both joyful and sorrowful experiences) in order to provide meaningful support, but you also have to remain strong and supportive and not accept the emotions for yourself in that position. (Interestingly, I’ve wondered if women who haven’t given birth should be in the position of doula because of this, and it’s part of what bothers me about the existence of male OBs)

  11. Kmillecam says:

    This is so fascinating. Actually, I think I used to be a better listener in high school and college. I have noticed in the last few years that I have been more prone to sharing my own personal stories and losing that sympathetic ability I once had. Getting clarity on the definitions on empathy and sympathy will be helpful as I increase my awareness of this in my conversations.

  12. Starfoxy says:

    I know it’s late but I want to thank you for writing this. Lately my son has been losing his temper and having terrible tantrums. (Screaming shouting etc.) My natural inclination is to leave him alone until he calms down.
    Last night during a tantrum I tried repeating back to him almost exactly what he had just said. It was nothing short of amazing. Right after I repeated what he said he took a deep breath, relaxed completely, stopped shouting and calmed down.
    All that shouting was just trying to make us hear him, and he wouldn’t believe that we did hear him until I repeated him. So thank you for this.

    • Corktree says:

      I’m so glad it helped! I’ve been noticing a lot lately too that much of what my children do is out of frustration at not feeling heard. An important reminder, thank you for sharing.

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