Crisis Intervention & Response LESSON #2 — Who is Qualified / Empathy vs. Sympathy

Operating in the world of crisis response involves both art and science. Certainly, dependent upon a specific situation, there are functions that are book learned ie; science. However, to be truly effective and comfortable with the process, some intuitive thinking comes into play (intuition is defined as a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why).

By the very nature of what first responders do, they are put in the position of dealing with death, fear, grief, confusion and even anger. The difference in just going through the process and dealing compassionately with the complex situation may be the difference of having empathy or showing sympathy. Empathy involves having a good sense of what another person is feeling, as opposed to sympathy, which is merely feeling bad for that person. It is fairly easy to feel sympathetic to someone else’s difficulties (sent a get well or sympathy card lately?).

On the other hand, think back to the terror of the 9/11 attacks. Those too young to have lived the event can easily sympathize with those who were involved. Those of us who witnessed the events of that day were stunned, shocked, saddened, in grief. We were not just sympathetic but expressed a great amount of empathy even though we were not on scene or didn’t know anyone personally who was directly involved. First responders are generally first responders because they want to help people and therefore by virtue of their intuitive motivation, empathy makes up a key component of who they are.

Evidence suggests there is a genetic basis to empathy and that we can enhance or, in some cases as required, restrict our intuitive natural empathetic abilities. Should you wish to informally measure your empahetic capacity take the Greater Good / Empathy Quiz.

Pete Adams
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