Have you ever wondered whether you have sympathy for someone, or is it empathy that you feel?

Sympathy is feeling compassion or sorrow for the hardships of another person.  If someone tells you some news, you feel for them.  Empathy on the other hand,  is putting yourself in the shoes of another.  You actually feel into the situation of another and feel with them.

Empathy is walking hand in hand in the situation of others.

As a parent of a child who had multiple disabilities, many people would express their feelings of sympathy:

“I am so sorry, it must be so difficult”

“I don’t know how you do it”

“I feel so bad, I don’t know what to do”

One of my more profound memories is from an “aha” moment during one of my In a Family’s Shoes workshops.  The purpose of the activity is to actually “walk in the shoes” of a family that has a child diagnosed with a disability.  This particular training was for support staff, many of whom had been working in that role for up to 20 years. All of a sudden, one of the participants jumped up and with tears in her eyes said, “This is an epiphany!”  “For so many years, I have been doing my work with care and compassion but this, this has actually allowed me to have first-hand experience of what the family is actually going through.”  “I now know what it feels like.”

Currently, there is a lot of emphasis on continuous improvement in social and health services.  I strongly believe that increasing empathy for the people that are served and supported, is key to continual quality improvement.    If you have had the chance to experience the life of another, you are more likely to realize the kind of support that is required.

That is a big part of the work that I do.  Helping others to actually feel into  the situation of others.

When called upon to conduct an organizational or program assessment, or to assist with developing a strategic plan, I like to use a method called ethnographic interviewing, a type of qualitative research that combines immersive observation and directed one-on-one interviews. It is important to understand the experience of both the user of service as well as the provider of service.  There will be answers that lie along both of their paths.  The key is to strengthen what is working on both ends, to remove unnecessary activities and find a balance that provides positive outcomes for both.

Quite often there is a misconception that the service provider doesn’t truly understand what the person is going through.  While this may be true, I have yet to meet a provider who truly enjoys bureaucracy or having to delay service.

How can we bring the perspectives together, to find common ground, balance and ultimately, continuous improvement?


Through an empathy invoking approach, such as a role play or ethnographic interviewing, we can uncover the real experience of others and explore pathways toward continual quality improvement.

~ Lisa