#70 Apparent Sympathy

Apparent Sympathy

When listening to people in conflict you will sometimes hear them sound sympathetic to the other party. Someone who has been speaking negatively about the other party may, at times, ‘switch gears’ and sound like they are feeling considerate towards the other party. What is this apparent sympathy about?

First, an example with an explanation.

Say Susan has refused to work with Betsy. I might hear Susan say: “I feel sorry for Betsy. She didn’t ever get the proper training for her level of responsibility. She doesn’t even have the know-how to make a good decision. It must be difficult for her.”

That could sound like sympathy. However, in a conflict dynamic, Susan’s statement about Betsy may actually be a Susan-centred comment. The apparent sympathy, although it sounds as if it focuses on Betsy, could really be Susan explaining her negative experience of Betsy to herself.

If we were to talk to Betsy, we would most likely find that Betsy doesn’t relate to Susan’s statement at all. In this case, whatever Betsy’s concerns are, Susan’s apparent sympathy for Betsy will have no meaning for Betsy. So the primary function is not to express sympathy towards Betsy, but to help Susan feel good about Susan’s own actions and rationale for carrying on the conflict. It has no meaning for Betsy because it is not concerned with any aspect of Betsy’s experience that concerns Betsy.

This dynamic is common in lawsuits, the workplace, and family conflict. It’s an opportunity point and here is one way you can challenge such a statement of apparent sympathy. You can ask how that sense of sympathy can inform the resolution of differences between the two people.

As an example (acting as confidant, mediator, friend, coach, or counselor) you can ask: “Susan, given your expressed sympathy for Betsy’s situation, what kind of accommodation would you like to consider in order to help resolve your differences?”

You may hear an offer of accommodation that can move the situation towards consensus. More likely though, Susan will bring herself back to an aspect of the conflict that has to be addressed, which is also a productive refocusing. For example Susan may say:

“Betsy may not have had adequate training, but she has taken this too far. I’ve reached my limit. Everyone who works with Betsy is negatively impacted. I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have… etc.” These statements represent Susan’s more genuine feelings towards Betsy, which call for attention.

In summary of this blog, what is apparently a statement of sympathy can be more explanation that serves to reinforce the speaker’s orientation to the conflict. One approach to constructively challenging such expressions is to ask how the ‘sympathetic’ viewpoint could inform settlement or the way forward. In my experience the most frequent result of challenge is the resurfacing of a more dominant conflict-laden sentiment that warrants attention.


In case you are interested I am teaching a 3-day Peacemaking Circle course in Campbell River, BC  25-27 October. At the last minute, some openings are available. Reply to this email if you are interested. 


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