Medicine Interview: Differences between sympathy and empathy

Advice & Insight From Interview Specialists

The terms empathy and sympathy may be used in day-to-day language synonymously. However, these two words have subtle differences in their definitions. It is important that you are aware of these differences so that you can confidently use these words, correctly in your answers. Admission tutors are looking to select students who have a high emotional intelligence and are able to relate to others. In order for interview success, you must not only understand the meanings of sympathy and empathy but have an awareness of how to demonstrate empathy and its importance in healthcare.

In a nut shell, sympathy is about showing care or concern to someone else whereas empathy is about sharing someone else’s emotions. The terms sympathy and empathy are derived from the Greek, differences between their derivatives help us to understand why the terms are not synonymous. Sympathy is derived from the 2 words “syn” and “pathos” which translates to “with feeling”. In contrast the noun empathy derives from “em”, “pathos” translating to “in feeling”. From this we can understand that sympathy is a natural passive emotion whereas empathy requires a greater level of emotional engagement. Empathy is a skill that must be developed and applied. Consider empathy as a multiphase process where you must not only be aware of the concerns of others but adjust your reactions and actions to show compassion and a positive intent to help the individual.

Sympathy vs Pity

There are subtle yet significant differences between the terms sympathy and pity. When you show sympathy to someone although you do not participate in solutions to their distress you are aware of how they are feeling. Similarly, pity is defined as “sorrow aroused by the suffering or ill fortune of others.” However, pity has condescending connotations. There term is used in the context when the individual has no inclination to support or offer help to the suffer.

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Empathy- the deeper meaning

Empathy requires a deeper engagement with the individual and their circumstances. Empathy is defined as an ability to understand and share the feelings of another. A common misconception is that empathy requires you to feel the emotions of others. In medicine, this may seem impossible when our patients may have such diverse living and health situations. An empathetic doctor will make an effort to actively understand their emotions. Although we cannot always change someone’s situation, we have control over how we respond to it and them.

Why is empathy important for doctors?

As a doctor, most patients in your care will be extremely vulnerable and may feel helpless. In order to elevate suffering within our patients we must holistically treat them with compassion and apply empathy. Having an understanding of a patient’s emotions is helpful for both the physician and patient. Patients are more likely to share their concerns with their doctor when they feel listed to and valued. From the perspective of the doctor empathy is a cornerstone to easily deliver whole person care. Within medicine there has been a push away from a paternalistic approach where doctors dictate treatment plans. Developing a partnership with the patient means that when decision making doctors can prioritize the preferences and needs of their patients. Doctors can make more informed decisions when they have all the information about a patient and understand the individuals’ circumstances before they try to help. Outcomes improve where this approach is taken as patients are more likely to engage with their health and adhere to treatment plans.

Doctors must not only show empathy to their patients and relatives but to other members of the multidisciplinary team. Through displaying empathy staff can support one another and embrace an open and friendly working environment. Hospital work is extremely full on and busy- however, this is no excuse for not investing interest and time to promote the wellbeing of your colleagues.

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Ways to show empathy

Interview stations will not only test your understanding of the term empathy but also your ability to emanate empathy in your responses. There are several techniques to show empathy which involve effective verbal and nonverbal communication techniques.

To convey empathy empathetic statements can be used. Empathetic phrases have in common that they focus on the person you are talking to rather than you as an individual. To show empathy we must acknowledge someone’s feelings, phrases such as “that sounds really difficult” shows that you are trying to understand the situation from someone else’s perspective. Try to avoid putting the focus on you. Avoid statements such as “ I know how you feel” and “ I understand what you’re going through”. Both these phrases put the focus on you rather than the person you are talking to. It is important to remember you can never know or understand exactly how someone else is feeling. It is not only important to acknowledge a patient’s feelings but to validate them. Doctors use positive affirmations to make their patients will feel valued and worthwhile.

Doctors may use other verbal communications skill to show empathy this may involve picking up on cues that the patient drops. At the beginning of a consultation, we should give the patient the time and space to present their feelings. The first minute of a consultation should allow the patient to explain their story without interruption. In this minute it is the role of the doctor to actively listen to the patient and embrace silences to let the patient gather their thoughts. In our questioning and discussions with patients we should address their ideas, concerns and expectations. Mirroring the patient’s words shows active engagement in what they are saying. Doctors also summaries their understanding back to a patient, not only to check that they have the key facts, but to show how they have listened to the patient. Educated guesses are another way of showing an understanding of the patients perspective, consider using the phrase “ I think you’re saying that life’s very difficult now – am I right?”

Medicine Interview: Differences between sympathy and empathy

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