How to Be Sympathetic

Three Methods:Expressing SympathyAvoiding Some Common MistakesUsing Helpful Words

Sympathy involves an attempt to understand someone's problems from a different perspective than your own. Even if this is something you struggle with, you can support your friends and loved ones by learning to express sympathy. Follow these steps to do so, keeping your doubts or negative reactions to yourself, and you may find that you develop more genuine sympathetic feelings than you expected.

Method 1
Expressing Sympathy

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    Give the other person a chance to talk about his/her emotions. Offer to listen to him/her talk about how s/he's feeling, or how s/he's trying to cope with his/her problems. You don't need to have solutions at hand. Sometimes a sympathetic ear can be a great help on its own.
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    Use body language to express sympathy. Even while listening, you can show that you are paying attention and sympathizing with your body language. Make eye contact, and nod in understanding occasionally. Keep your body turned toward the person instead of to one side.[1][2]
    • Don't try to multitask, and avoid distractions during the conversation. Turn off your phone if you can, to avoid interruption.[3]
    • Keep your body open by leaving your arms and legs uncrossed. If your hands are visible, keep them relaxed and facing slightly sideways.[4] This will help communicate that you are engaged in listening to the other person.
    • Lean toward the person. Leaning in toward the other person may make him or her feel more comfortable talking to you.[5]
    • Nod as the person is talking. Nodding and other encouraging gestures help people feel more comfortable talking.[6]
    • Mirror the other person's body language. This isn't to say that you have to directly copy everything s/he does, but keeping your body in a similar posture to his or hers (for example, facing him/her if s/he is facing you, keeping your legs pointed in the same direction as his/hers) will help create a supportive atmosphere with your body language.[7]
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    Listen first, offer comments later. In many cases, the other person needs you to listen as s/he explores his/her feelings and thoughts. This is being supportive, even if it does not feel particularly active or helping to you.[8] Often, if you offer advice before it is asked, you risk making the other person think you are making his/her experience about you.[9]
    • "No-solution listening," according to author Michael Rooni, allows you to provide other people with a safe space to vent and work through their feelings. They do not feel pressure to take your advice, nor feel like you are "taking over" their problem or situation.
    • If in doubt, ask: "I want to support you however you need me to. Do you want me to help you problem-solve, or do you just need a space to vent? Either way, I'm here for you."[10]
    • If you went through similar experiences, you may be able to help with practical advice or methods of coping. Frame your advice as your personal experience, not a command. For example: "I'm so sorry you broke your leg. I remember how much it sucked when I broke my ankle a few years ago. Would it be helpful if I shared what I did to cope?"
    • Make sure not to come across as dictating a certain course of action. If you do have advice and the person is interested in hearing it, phrase it as a probing question, such as "Have you considered ___?" or "Do you think it would help if you _____?" These types of questions acknowledge the other person's agency in making his or her own decisions and sound less bossy than "If I were you, I'd do ______."[11]
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    Use appropriate physical contact. Physical contact can be comforting, but only if it is appropriate in the context of your relationship. If you are used to hugging the person who needs sympathy, do so. If either of you are not comfortable with that, briefly touch his/her arm or shoulder instead.[12]
    • Be aware that some people may feel too emotionally vulnerable or raw to enjoy a hug at that moment, even if hugging is commonly part of your interactions. Take note of the other person's body language and judge whether s/he seems open. You can also ask, "Would a hug make you feel better?"
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    Offer to help out with everyday work. Someone going through a hard time in her life will likely appreciate some assistance in day-to-day tasks. Even if s/he seems to be handling these tasks well, the gesture demonstrates that you are there to help. Offer to drop off a home-cooked or restaurant take-out meal. Ask if you can help by picking the kids up from school, watering his/her garden, or assisting him/her in some other way.[13]
    • Mention a specific date and time in your offer, rather than asking someone when s/he's available. This gives him/her one less thing to decide or think about during a stressful time.
    • Ask before offering food. Particularly in certain cultures or after funerals, the person may be overwhelmed with pies and casseroles. Something else could be more helpful.
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    Refer to a shared religion. If you both belong to the same religion or share similar spiritual views, use that to bond with the person. Offer to pray for him/her or attend a religious ceremony with him/her.
    • Do not reference your religious views when expressing sympathy to someone who does not share them.

Method 2
Avoiding Some Common Mistakes

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    Avoid claiming to know or understand what someone is going through. Even if you went through a similar experience, realize that everyone copes in different ways. You may describe how you felt during that experience or suggest ideas that might help, but understand that the other person may be going through a different struggle.[14]
    • Instead, try saying something like, "I can only imagine how hard this must be for you. I know how sad I was when my own dog died."
    • Most importantly, never claim that your own problems are more serious (even if you feel that way). You are here to support the other person.
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    Avoid minimizing or invalidating the other person's feelings. Acknowledge that the other person's problems are real. Focus on listening to his/her problems and supporting him/her as s/he deals with them, not telling him/her that they're not worth the attention.[15]
    • Try not to accidentally minimize or invalidate your friend's experience. For example, if you try to comfort a friend who has lost her pet by saying, "I'm sorry you lost your dog. At least it could be worse - you could have lost a member of your family," you're actually invalidating her grief for her pet, even if you don't mean it that way. This could make her feel reluctant to share her feelings with you, or even feel ashamed of them herself.[16]
    • Another example of invalidation is the well-meaning, "Don't feel that way." For example, if your friend is struggling with body image issues after an illness and tells you that he feels unattractive, it would be unhelpful to reply: "Don't think like that! You're still attractive." This tells your friend that he is "wrong" or "bad" for having his feelings. You can validate the feelings without agreeing with the idea behind them. For example: "I hear you saying that you're feeling unattractive, and I'm so sorry that hurts you. That must really suck. If it helps, I think you're still very attractive."[17]
    • Similarly, don't say "at least it's not as bad as it could be."[18] This can be interpreted both as a dismissal of the person's problems, and as a reminder of additional problems in the person's life.
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    Avoid expressing personal beliefs that the other person does not share. S/he may not be comforted by such statements, or s/he may even be offended by such statements. They can often feel impersonal or prepackaged. It is usually best to keep your focus on the person you are interacting with and what you can do for him/her.[19]
    • For example, you may be a deeply religious person who believes in an afterlife, but the other person does not. It may feel natural to you to say something like, "At least your loved one is in a better place now," but the other person may not get comfort from that.
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    Stay away from pressuring someone to use your solution. It's reasonable to suggest a course of action that you think might help someone, but don't stress the person out by bringing it up repeatedly. You might see it as an obvious, easy solution, but recognize that the other person might not agree.
    • Once you have said your piece, let it go. You may be able to bring up the point again if new information comes up. For example, "I know you don't want to take pain medication, but I heard about a safer drug that might have fewer risks. Are you interested in the name so you can research it yourself?" If the person declines, drop it.
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    Remain calm and kind. You may think the other person's problems are petty, or less serious than your own. You may even be jealous of someone whose problems seem so minor. This is not the correct time to bring this up, and you may never have a good opportunity to do so. It's better to politely say goodbye and leave the room, rather than express your irritation.
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    Don't act hard or uncaring. Some people think that "tough love" is an effective therapy technique, but this is the opposite of acting sympathetic. If someone is grieving or sad for a long period of time, s/he may be depressed. In this case, s/he should talk to a doctor or therapist; trying to get him/her to "toughen up" or "move on" is not helpful.[20]
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    Don't insult the person. This may seem obvious, but during stressful times, it can be easy to lose control of your emotions. If you find yourself arguing with the person, insulting him/her, or criticizing his/her behavior, leave the room and apologize once you've calmed down.
    • Do not even jokingly insult someone who needs sympathy. S/he may be feeling vulnerable and easily hurt.

Method 3
Using Helpful Words

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    Acknowledge the event or problem. Use these phrases to explain why you're approaching the person in need of sympathy, if you heard about the problem from someone else. If s/he started the conversation, respond by acknowledging the other person's feelings.
    • "I'm sorry to hear that."
    • "I heard you were going through tough times."
    • "That sounds painful."
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    Ask the person how they're coping. Some people respond to stress or grief by becoming busier. They may not take the time off to think about their emotional state. Make eye contact and use a phrase that makes it clear you're asking about his/her feelings, not day-to-day life:
    • "How are you feeling?"
    • "How are you coping with everything?"
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    Express support. Make it clear that you are on his/her side. Mention friends and family that may also be able to support him/her, reminding him/her that s/he has other people to turn to:
    • "You are in my thoughts."
    • "I am here when you need me."
    • "I'll be in touch later this week about helping out with _____."
    • Avoid the very common "Let me know if there's anything I can do." This actually makes the person have to think of something for you, which they may not feel capable of doing at this time.
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    Let the person know that emotions are appropriate. Some people have trouble expressing emotions, or feel that they are experiencing the "wrong" emotions. Use these phrases to let them know it's okay:
    • "It's okay to cry if you need to."
    • "I accept whatever you need to do right now."
    • "It's normal to feel guilty." (or anger, or whichever emotion the other person just expressed)


  • If you're not usually skilled at expressing emotions or sympathy, just making the attempt can show a loved one that you're putting in extra effort for them.
  • Empathy is different than sympathy. When you offer sympathy, you're offering care and concern for their suffering, but you are not necessarily feeling it yourself. When you attempt to empathize, you actively imagine yourself in the other person's unique situation -- you try to "put yourself in her shoes," essentially. You try to imagine what it is like to experience the other person's emotions, so that you can try to understand what she is feeling.[21] One is not "better" than the other, but it's helpful to know the difference.

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