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Consultation Skills

Empathy and Compassion





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What is sympathy?

Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.  You may not always automatically feel how another is feeling, and that’s when you need to rely on your imagination. You have most likely heard the phrase, “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  

Sympathy is a shared feeling, usually of sorrow, pity or compassion for another person. You show concern for another person when you feel sympathy for them. … Empathy is stronger than sympathy. It is the ability to put yourself in the place of another and understand someone else’s feelings by identifying with them.

It makes sense, then, to send sympathy cards when you understand that someone is suffering. You are not feeling that person’s pain, but you want them to know you are aware of their suffering. Typically, people can sympathize much easier than they can empathize

What is empathy?

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  Empathy is viscerally feeling what another feels – usually because you have gone through a similar process in your past.  Empathic statements are supportive comments that specifically link the ‘I’ of the doctor and the ‘you’ of the patient. They both name and appreciate the patient’s affect or predicament (Platt and Kelley 1994):


  • I can see that your husband’s memory loss has been very difficult for you to cope with.’
  • I can appreciate how difficult it is for you to talk about this.’
  • I can sense how angry you have been feeling about your illness.’
  • I can see that you have been very upset by hey behaviour.’
  • I can understand that it must be frightening for you to know the pain might keep coming back.’

What is Compassion?

The definition of compassion is the ability to understand the emotional state of another person or oneself. Often confused with empathy, compassion has the added element of having a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering of another.  Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., is the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator and author of the course Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). Jinpa posits that compassion is a four-step process:

  1. Awareness of suffering.
  2. Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering.
  3. Wish to see the relief of that suffering.
  4. Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.

Why are they important?

While these words are near cousins, they are not synonymous with one another.

  • Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling. 
  • Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. 
  • Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another.
All of these things shows the other person that you understand and care about their situation.   Empathy is deeper than sympathy.  Compassion is deeper than Empathy.  However, all three can help deepen the therapeutic relationship between doctor and patient.   
Be careful though.  If you are frequently feeling the pain of another (i.e. empathy), you may experience a great deal of burnout. This is a common problem for caregivers and health care providers, and it’s been labeled “empathy fatigue.”  Compassion, however, is a renewable resource. When you have the ability to feel empathy for the other person but then extend a hand to alleviate someone’s pain, you are less likely to burn out.
The Dalai Lama famously said in the book The Art of Happiness, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

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