Psychologists, counsellors, nurses, or anyone in a caring profession require EMPATHY.
What exactly is empathy?
Carl Rogers (1957), the founder of person-centred therapy, defined it as:
to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the as if condition.
All too often empathy and sympathy can be confused, but understanding the difference between the two can make us more effective communicators.
What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?
To express sympathy is to make it known that you are aware of another’s distress and that you have compassion for them.
To express empathy takes things a step further by not only expressing compassion but also showing a deeper level of understanding by entering into the other person’s experience.
Imagine being at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Peer up to the top of the hole and you might see some of your friends and family waiting for you, offering words of support and encouragement. This is sympathy; they want to help you out of the pit you have found yourself in. This can assist, but not as much as the person who is standing beside you; the person who is in that hole with you and can see the world from your perspective; this is empathy.
On the surface, there is very little difference between empathy and sympathy, so why is it so important to distinguish the two?
Expressing sympathy can leave a person feeling that people have taken pity on them, or are feeling sorry for them, which can create a sense of inferiority and disempowerment.
A more effective approach would be to take a position that does not allow for a hierarchy to form, but that enables everyone to feel on the same emotional level. This more effective form of communication can only come with expressing empathy.
There are a number of ways in which empathy can be offered, including:
Reflecting a person’s expressed feelings back to them
Paraphrasing what a person has said to you to demonstrate an understanding.
Examples of sympathy versus empathy are shown in the box below. Empathy indicates your presence, conveys an understanding of the other person’s thoughts and feelings, and provides reassurance that no judgements are being made.
I am so sorry about your loss.
How awful. Poor you.
Let me do that for you.
I feel so sad for you.
I feel your grief.
I understand this has been a great loss for you.
Can I help you with that?
I feel and understanding your pain.
Empathy is not just useful as a tool to use when someone is in distress, it does have wider uses. For example, in our work and personal life we will meet many people with differing views and perspectives on life. People may express political or religious views that differ from our own and which can lead to barriers in communication. The use of empathic dialogue can serve to prevent such barriers.
Rogers, C. (1957) ‘The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change’, Journal of Consulting Psychology, 21 (2): 95-103