Many of us within the “caring fields” [doctors, nurses, counselors, social workers, pastors] are taught to reflect back the thoughts of those we are speaking with. We are encouraged to use phrases like, I understand, I hear what you are saying.
The goal is to express sympathy or empathy with the one you are speaking with.
Sympathy vs Empathy
The “sym” in sympathy means “together” or “at the same time.” We can be sympathetic when we have experienced the same, or similar pain that someone is walking through.
I am able to be sympathetic when I can recall how a similar experience in my own life made me feel. Without a shared experience it is impossible for me to be sympathetic.
Empathy is expressed when we can imagine how someone might feel without actually experiencing the emotions or situation that is causing them pain.
We move closer to empathy when we learn to “put ourselves in another person’s shoes.”
Sympathy is sharing. Empathy is understanding.
A problem arises when we try to be sympathetic when we really should be seeking to express empathy. Without shared experience, it is easy for our words [I understand, I hear what you are saying] to come across as hollow, empty, even demeaning.
A Return to HUP
Thursday night I ended up back in the hospital.
Over the past few years, I have learned how to watch my body pretty well. I know the signs when things are not right.
Thursday evening I was vomiting, my urine was dark, stool light, I was running a fever, had the chills, and I could have slept all the time. As if that was not enough the bloodwork from Wednesday was back and all my liver numbers were trending in the wrong direction. My bilirubin, AST, ALT, and Alkaline Phosphate were climbing. It was like the perfect storm of indicators that something was not right.
Arriving at the hospital I carefully outlined why I was there and tried to help the team of doctors understand my cause for concern.
- “I hear what you are saying, but your numbers are not bad enough for us to intervene yet.”
- “We understand your concern, but are not convinced that there is really anything going on, your bilirubin number is only slightly elevated.”
- “I hear you saying you think something is wrong, but we are not sure what to do right now.”
The longer this went on the more frustrated I became. The comment that reduced me to laughter…
- “Well, maybe your numbers will magically turn around”
No sympathy, no empathy
They did not hear, nor did they understand. My body was screaming at me that something was wrong.
Sympathy was impossible, nobody standing before me had any personal experience with the struggles I have been going through.
While the words may have been correct, empathy was in short supply because nobody was trying to imagine how I was feeling at that moment.
After a little more “conversation” I convinced them that maybe we ought to be treating me with antibiotics.
A 22 hour nap
I slept twenty-two out of twenty-four hours on Friday.
Late Saturday morning a member of that same team said, “See, your numbers have improved.”
I just about leapt out of bed. Of course, they improved, we have been treating me with fluids and antibiotics for the past twenty-four hours!
Right before I was discharged Saturday afternoon the most empathetic person I met came to visit.
Dr. Shazia Mehmood Siddique, MD, MSHP works with the GI team. Dr. Siddique spent twenty minutes explaining everything that had happened and was most likely going to happen in the future. Her level of caring and compassion was off the charts.
Walking out the door of the hospital I was encouraged that we had done the right thing and caught an issue early before it became something much more significant.
The Words We Speak
For the past few days, I have been thinking about the language we use when seeking to relate to other people. Phrases like “I hear you,” or “I understand” are only helpful if we are truly seeking to build a connection with someone. If, as in the case of my doctors, the goal is to move to your own agenda it is best to leave those phrases left unsaid.
Speaking “I hear you” or “I understand” simply to pacify someone does nothing but increase their frustration with the situation and cause them to shut down.
True sympathy and empathy are not easy emotions to communicate.
When you find someone who is willing to listen to the reality of your journey with a sympathetic or empathetic ear keep them around.
Better yet, make sure you thank them for being such a good friend.
Thanks for listening.
God is Good All the Time…All the Time God is Good