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Pew: Compassion > Empathy > Sympathy

By Mark Pew

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 | 254 | 0 | min read

On Nov. 1 at WorkCompCentral's Comp Laude gala in San Diego, I attended a session that reinforced how different "empathy" is from "sympathy."

Mark Pew

Mark Pew

Spoiler alert: The words mean completely different things. According to dictionary.com:

Sympathy: the fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble.

Empathy: the psychological identification with, or vicarious experiencing of, the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.

The operative words that define the difference are "sharing" versus "identification."

The panel, entitled "Empathy in Managed Care," was moderated by Tom Kerr (Genex Services) and included Delainne "Laney" Bond (Genex Services), Becky Curtis (Take Courage Coaching) and Dr. Chris Brigham ("Living Abled & Healthy").

I've just gotten to know Tom and Laney over the past couple of months but have known Becky and Chris for a couple of years (read about our shared relationship in my blog post "Tres Recovery Caballeros"). Together they made a very dynamic panel and offered some very helpful insights for how to inject more empathy into workers' compensation that I tweeted out real-time ...

  • "Establish empathetic relationship on Day 1 for all (not just catastrophic) #WorkComp injuries" — Dr. Chris Brigham #CompLaudeGala.
  • "Treatment is not one-size-fits-all. Where they were before the injury is important context for recovery." — Becky Curtis #CompLaudeGala.
  • "Empathy (cheering you on) <> sympathy (can be just 'pity' and create victimhood)" — Becky Curtis #CompLaudeGala.
  • "Key difference: Empathy is about them, sympathy is about you" — Laney Bond #CompLaudeGala.
  • "Difference: 'pain free' (maybe not achievable) and 'free from (being controlled by) pain' (more achievable)" — Becky Curtis #CompLaudeGala.
  • "Negative thinking is a huge obstacle to recovery and real pain management" — Laney Bond #CompLaudeGala.
  • "As a clinician, focus on what they CAN do vs. what they canNOT do because #WordsMatter" — Dr. Chris Brigham #CompLaudeGala.
  • "PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) vs. PTR (post traumatic resilience), what MOST people have" — Becky Curtis #CompLaudeGala.
  • "Nurses are trained in therapeutic communication that is focused on empathy, open-ended Qs, non-judgment" — Laney Bond #CompLaudeGala.
  • "Motivational interviewing is an empathetic communication mode" — Becky Curtis #CompLaudeGala.

On the day before the panel, Dr. Robert Pearl ("Mistreated: Why we think we're getting good health care — and why we're usually wrong") made his own profound statement. Bob Wilson published an article ("There is No Reimbursement Code for Compassion") the following day that outlines why Dr. Pearl said what he said (it's a personal story about the death of his father). But his statement so moved me that I immediately tweeted out his "pearl" of wisdom:

  • "There is no CPT or ICD for compassion." — Dr. Robert Pearl #CompLaudeGala.

So now we have a third word for how one person can respond to another person's difficulties:

Compassion: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

To put a cap on my experience that week, I observed the following dialogue on Twitter:

Many people have similar experiences — but similar isn't exactly the same.

This is why empathy cannot truly exist, in my opinion. We can never completely know the experience of another. But we can have compassion when we hear another's story, and compassion is healing.

So let's build a hierarchy of responses to another person's difficulty:

  • Sympathy (sharing the feeling) sounds good. But it is passive, and that emotion of "pity" doesn't really help the person in need. By itself it is not sufficient, but it is a very reasonable step 1.
  • Empathy (psychological identification) connects more deeply with the attitude of "there, but for the grace of God, go I," and can certainly build transparency and trust that enables help. But it remains relatively passive, by itself is not sufficient, and is only step 2.
  • Compassion (sympathy empathy desire to alleviate the suffering) builds upon steps 1 and 2 and actively works to help the person. It takes the building blocks of feeling and identification to overcome inertia and create kinetic energy.

Which one of those levels do we currently exhibit in workers' compensation toward an injured worker and his/her family? Which level should we exhibit?

Laney was profiled as doing the latter. A Nov. 1 Risk & Insurance article "Making the Connection" outlined how an injured workers' simple scratch to the face became a life-threatening situation due to a rare reaction to the antibiotic. Going from insignificant to catastrophic quickly, the outcome was changed by not just identifying the issue but doing something about it.

As Laney said, "You don’t come into this job and expect to be saving peoples’ lives, but it happens."

In your personal life, in your business life — do you need to constantly evaluate your attitude (that could change your words and actions) about other people's difficult circumstances? I know I do.

Mark Pew is a national speaker and author on chronic pain and appropriate treatment, as well as senior vice president of Prium, a medical managed care provider for the workers' compensation industry. This post is republished with permission from his Rx Professor blog.

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