Thursday, December 19, 2013

The difference between empathy and sympathy

As I head off into a blogging break through New Year's Day, I pass along this view by Dr. Brené Brown of the difference between empathy and sympathy, a distinction that those of us in the health care world would be wise to understand. "Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection."

Animation by Katy Davis. 

Happy New Year!


Jack Bowhan said...

That 3 minutes can be used for a life time. Thanks for sharing.

Elaine Schattner, M.D. said...

Thanks for sharing this cute video, Paul.

Yes, the distinction between sympathy and empathy gets blurry. But I'm not so sure, as this film suggests, that sympathy is all bad. Rather, it has a different function. A more general point, in the healthcare business, is that I don't think empathy can or should be "sold" by hospitals, a point I tried to make here:

Can empathy be taught to medical students? Maybe, but I'm not convinced. It's a quality about people for which the schools and residency programs should select, perhaps. But empathy as buzzword? It's become absurd, and diminishes the real thing IMO.

(Sincerely) best wishes for the holiday and new year,

Empathy vs. Sympathy said...

I just found your blog, and I'm actually really excited to see this topic being discussed. I'm working on a clinical social work degree, and we've talked a lot about empathy vs. sympathy. My take-away was that empathy incorporates the ideas from the video (cognitively understanding a person's emotional state; refraining from judgment; providing support), whereas sympathy is *actually feeling* another person's emotions.

As a clinician, there's a big difference---empathy allows your client/patient to be and feel understood, without the clinician having to feel the distress that the client/patient is feeling (if clinicians felt all of their clients' pain, they'd burn out within their first week on the job!).

I'd love to hear others' thoughts, and I'm glad this is part of a larger discussion!


Unknown said...

Primatologist Frans de Waal writes extensively on empathy, including the relationship between empathy and sympathy. If you have the time, I recommend digging through his work. Dr. Schattner, empathy can be taught, however hard it may be. Research demonstrates an intense biological component to empathy; you largely either have it (or the capabilty to have it) or you don't. I'd agree, however, that sympathy is not all bad. Assuming organizations provide the right tools for clinicians (enter the Cleveland Clinic's Code Lavendar
program for emotionally distressed employees)

Susannah said...

Back to what your first commenter, Jack, said: thank you for posting this. Even reading about the idea of empathetic connection can make a person (me) feel better. Though I grant that improving medical education and giving clinicians tools to better connect with their patients is important, so is reaching people even one at a time (or a whole blog-following at a time) and reminding them to "Connect. Only connect," as E.M. Forster had it. Happy New Year, Paul and all.

Jonathan Spero M.D. said...

Simple and smart. If physicians are charged with caring from their patients above all else, that connection has to be there!