by | Jun 12, 2018 | Coach School

I want to ask you something. Are you a rescuer?

Sometimes what we think is empathy is actually sympathy and it can do more harm than good.

Let’s take a look at what empathy and sympathy mean and when you think you might be helping someone, where you could be in fact hindering them.

What is sympathy?

First of all, sympathy is all about feeling compassion, or feeling sorry for someone, or feeling pity for them in a set of circumstances. It’s about you projecting your sense of pity on them.

And empathy?

Empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and feeling what they feel. Or feeling lots of different perspectives, which is what masterful coaches are very skilled at doing. They can really demonstrate strong empathy with their clients. They can feel what it’s like to be in their shoes, and they can also feel lots of different perspectives around the client’s situation.


The Trap

When I see empathy and sympathy being confused is in a scenario that I affectionately call The Trap. In The Trap there are three roles:

  • the victim
  • the aggressor
  • the rescuer

What usually happens in The Trap is the aggressor says something or does something to the victim, and then the victim goes to the rescuer and tells them what has happened.

Being a rescuer, being sympathetic

What the rescuer does is the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Rescuing is when that person says to the victim,

“Do you know what, that happened to me too, I know exactly how you feel, and this happened to me….”

and you tell them your story of the similar scenario. But you don’t know what happened to them. You don’t know exactly how they are feeling. When you do that you’re making it all about you, not about the victim and that’s a form of rescuing.

Of course, we do it with the best of intentions because we’re trying to show that we understand, or we think that we understand, what they’re going through and that’s the tricky bit in The Trap – because we think we’re doing the right thing.

Here’s another example, so you may say,

“Oh, there there, don’t worry about it.”

That completely diminishes what the victim’s feeling and you’re unconsciously saying their feelings are not actually important.

When you see someone who’s in pain, who has had something happen to them, you want them to feel better because we feel uncomfortable when someone else is uncomfortable.

Sympathy not empathy

Rescuing makes us feel better. It’s not really about making the other person feel better. The other way that that rescuers tend to think that they’re helping the victims is to say,

“I’ll go and talk to that person for you. That’s not on, let me go and sort it out for you. “

That removes all of the power from the victim and it doesn’t let them build any of their own resilience for the future. It does make us feel really good, we’re going to come in with our superhero cape and we’re going to solve the problem.

It’s a bit like the adage of giving a man a fish and he’ll feed his family for one day, teach him to fish and he can feed his family for a lifetime.

When you go in and rescue and solve the problem for someone, you’re robbing them of the ability to learn how to do it for themselves, and the chances are that they will happily let you do it.

What does empathy look like?

Here’s a few things to do instead. Demonstrating empathy, you could say,

“That sounds really hard. I’m sorry that happened to you. What do you think’s going on for that person for them to behave that way?”

Or you might say,

“Hey that sounds really hard. How would you like to be feeling instead?”

That really opens up the possibility of changing the way that the victim is feeling and then you can help them to come up with some scenarios and solutions. But how THEY might do it, not how you might do it for them.

You could say,

“Would you like to roleplay some possible responses? So that you can go back to the aggressor and say I’m not happy with what happened. “

You may be able to offer some roleplay that gives the victim some confidence to go and solve their own problem.

Use empathy to build solutions

Because when you rescue, and you come in with the best of intentions to solve someone’s problem, you’re robbing them of the chance of learning how to do it for themselves and that’s the same as pitying them.

Using empathy and giving the victim the opportunity to build their own solution with help from you is the real super hero solution.

Let me know how you get on.

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