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Rod Webb

Glasstap Limited

Director and Co-Founder

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What’s Wrong with Sympathy?


COVID; it finally got me. My symptoms were mostly those of a cold, but it was exhausting nonetheless, and I decided to do what I’d insisted other team members do in the same circumstances. I took time off to relax and fight it.

But I really don’t want your sympathy, and I’ll explain why.

I used the first two days of my sick leave to read a novel. I can’t remember the last time I did that; just sat down and read a book in two days. It felt slightly hedonistic! 

The book I’d chosen was The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Like many of you, I suspect, I was familiar with the story; but I’d never bothered to read the book. I’m so glad I did, because I think Oscar Wilde raises a lot of questions about behaviour and what motivates it. 

Let’s be clear, Dorian Gray becomes a pretty despicable character. I hope I’m not giving too much away when I say that when his first love interest dies by suicide, his focus quickly turns to how awful it was of her to do that to him!

But his character and in particular the philosophical ramblings of his friend Basil really made me think.  

How often do we look at the world as though through a magnifying glass in reverse, with the focus on ourselves, and our needs and wants? And how often does that impact the way we react to other people and situations?

For example, think about the last time someone did something at work that really annoyed you. What was your first reaction? 

Was it to question what might have caused them to adopt that behaviour? To wonder what might be going on in their lives? To consider whether they might be struggling? 

Or was it to focus on how wronged you were and your feelings of hurt or betrayal?

I know I have been guilty of the latter. 

And what about sympathy? 

“You come down here to console me. That is charming of you. You find me consoled and you are furious. How like a sympathetic person!”

Here, Wilde uses his wit to expose the same flaw; sympathy is something we give whilst focused on our perspective. It’s usually based on an assumption that we understand the other person’s emotional response to the situation they’re facing. 

And that assumption is usually based on another assumption – that the person feels the same way we would.

When we express sympathy, we’ll often use must phrases: “You must be feeling so let down.” “You must be upset.” 

And of course, sympathetic people are full of advice too, which can involve more use of words like ‘must’ and ‘should’. Again, based on what we would do, or would want to do in their situation. 

“You must try to forget him.” “You should tell him how you feel!” “You should ignore it.” 

But what if that basic assumption we’ve made that we understand their emotional response is wrong, as in Wilde’s example? 

What happens when we don’t understand someone else’s emotional response? Well, I take you back to the example I started with. Did you feel sympathy for the person who’d wronged you at work? Probably not, if you didn’t understand their behaviour. 

Too often, sympathy is given, or not given (because we can’t give it, if we don’t feel it), when what’s really needed is empathy. 

Empathy differs from sympathy because its focus is on the other person’s perspective. It involves putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and understanding why they may have the feelings they have – even if those feelings are different to those you might experience. Whilst sympathy is about our reaction to someone else’s experience - empathy doesn’t require us to make any judgement. It simply requires deep understanding. 

In short, empathy involves ensuring that magnifying glass is turned the right way and focused on the other person’s emotional response, not ours. 

The good news is empathy is a skill we can learn! It’s a key part of emotional intelligence. 

What do you think? All comments and feedback welcome, as always.

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Author Profile Picture
Rod Webb

Director and Co-Founder

Read more from Rod Webb

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