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Why Providing Sympathy Before Problem-Solving Is Important

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To provide sympathy or to solve the problem? What a dilemma. It seems like we should be able to do both. After all, isn’t sympathy helpful? Doesn’t helping solve a problem demonstrate sympathy? Not exactly.

With a little careful observation, one can see these two actions are actually opposed to each other. Sympathizing means acknowledging the difficult, uncomfortable, painful situation or emotions a person is experiencing. For example, a person drops her ice cream cone on the ground. A sympathetic response is, “I’m so sorry that happened. You must be so disappointed.” You are acknowledging how painful and disappointing it must be to drop one’s ice cream cone. You are sharing in this person’s emotions a bit.

Sometimes sympathy can overlap with empathy, and sympathy is often more effective when one is empathizing fully, but sympathy is possible without empathy. Even people with antisocial personality disorder (often referred to as sociopaths) who are incapable of feeling empathy can provide sympathy. Many times, the words to a variety of situations may be the same.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“That must be painful.”

“I can only imagine how frustrated you must feel.”

“That’s just awful.”

Those are just a sampling of phrases that may express sympathy.

The person’s response to sympathy is often validation. The person feels listened to, and validated for their emotional response. If she is disappointed when her ice cream cone is dropped, she feels validated when you acknowledge her disappointment. If she is feeling betrayed when her spouse cheats on her, she feels validated when you express the pain and hurt she must be feeling. Sympathy doesn’t solve the problem, but it makes the person feel heard, and that is often the first step toward empowerment.

Additionally, sympathy often prompts the person to talk about the issue further, which can lead to distancing, and eventually the acquisition of a new perspective. This new perspective can help the person eventually figure out a solution to their problem on their own, or at least with minimal help from you.

Problem-solving, on the other hand, is fundamentally different from sympathy. As opposed to acknowledging the person’s experience or emotions, problem-solving actually shifts attention away from the person’s experience to the concrete problem. The problem is now the center of the discussion, and not the person or their experience. Problem-solving cannot help the person process the experience or make them feel validated. Instead, problem-solving can potentially solve the problem for the future, but then again, it may not. Even if the problem is solved, there are consequences to this concrete approach.

For example, if a person expresses their frustration or disappointment with dropping an ice cream cone and you immediately buy them another one, you have essentially dismissed the person’s concerns. Your quick actions have trivialized their feelings, making them feel as long as the problem is solved, there is no sense in wasting time and energy on processing the emotions.

It can also have the effect of making the person feel helpless, or dependent on others. If the person is helped, or the problem solved by someone else every time something unpleasant happens, then the person may begin to feel like they can’t manage their life independently. Over time, the habit of solving this person’s problems immediately may undermine their confidence, preventing them from even trying to solve their own problems in the future.

While problem-solving itself isn’t bad, it’s when we try to solve another person’s problems that we are actually eroding that person’s autonomy and sense of self. Rather than simply responding with all sympathy or all problem-solving, however, the solution is actually a combination of both, as well as a personalized approach to what the person in front of you needs.

For example, if a person says they are upset and disappointed over an action, what the person is asking for is for you to first acknowledge the validity of their feelings. Only after the person has been heard and validated, should we begin the process of problem-solving. In fact, even then, I suggest more listening is probably the best approach. Allowing the person to continue to speak will hopefully lead to distancing, and a new perspective, eventually resulting in a solution without your input. But by actively listening and reflecting back what the person is saying, you are indeed helping the person more than you know. True, you don’t get the immediate benefit of “solving the problem,” but without your attentive ear, the person may not have been able to solve it on their own. Needless to say, in the case where a person directly acts you for help in solving a problem, then by all means, solve away. Just remember that you are helping them, not solving it all by yourself like some self-righteous hero.

In the end, listen to what each person needs, and provide that to them. Listening and providing sympathy really isn’t very hard. Make eye contact, don’t do other things while they’re talking and find the handful of phrases that validate and acknowledge the person’s experiences. Ideally, you can support the person while they comes to their own conclusions and solutions to their problems, increasing their autonomy and self-confidence in the process. While it may be less immediately satisfying, you will likely appreciate the technique when it is someday applied to you. Everybody enjoys solving a problem, but nobody enjoys having to depend on others to solve them for us. In the end we are merely treating others as we would like to be treated.

Getty image by lorenzoantonucci

Originally published: May 28, 2021
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