“I don’t blame you one iota for feeling as you do. If I were you I would undoubtedly feel just as you do.” This is the one phrase that will soften the most cantankerous old cuss alive. You can be 100% sincere in saying this because if you were the other person, you would feel just as he does. You and I deserve very little credit for being what we are. It is our environment and experiences that shape us. Remember the people who come to you irritated, bigoted, or unreasoning deserve very little discredit for being what they are. Feel sorry for the poor devils. Pity them. Sympathize with them. Say to yourself: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Three-fourths of the people you will ever meet are hungering and thirsting for sympathy. Give it to them, and they will love you. Sympathize with the person’s viewpoint. Soon they will begin to sympathize with yours. Sympathy has the enormous chemical value of neutralizing the acid of hard feelings.
*Compilation taken from “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” by Dale Carnegie
I want to add my thoughts to what Dale Carnegie suggests here. First of all, while I love Carnegie’s book, I realize that not all of what he prescribes for dealing with people is ideal for every situation. Of course there are exceptions. And I think there is an exception to how he approaches today’s topic about offering sympathy.
Now, I agree with Carnegie’s belief that showing sympathy can be a powerful quality to possess. Indeed, it can be the salve that soothes any sore spirit. And it’s probably the right approach 99.9% of the time. However, the truth is, sometimes people dig their own grave. Perhaps their gloomy situations and mucky circumstances may not be entirely their fault, but nonetheless, their choices and attitude have had a lot to do with where they are. And when dealing with someone that is prone to soliciting for pity, sometimes offering that pity to them does not help their cause – it only digs their grave deeper. It keeps them perpetuating the mindset of “Woe is me.” So, while sympathy has its place, sometimes you have to be careful not to allow yourself to fall down into the grave with the person, because if you do, you can’t help lift them out. Sometimes, more than your sympathy, what they really need is your strength. It can be hard, I know. You want to be that soft shoulder to cry on. You want to offer a hug, a word of solace. But sometimes you need to be a stalwart voice of resolve that says, “It’s time to get up, brush yourself off, and push on.”
Ultimately, you just have to use your best judgment to discern what the right prescription is. A lot depends on what kind of relationship you have with the person. Naturally, the closer you are with someone the easier it is to excercise tough love if you need to. Again, there’s nothing wrong with showing sympathy, but you don’t want to fall into the trap of appeasing someone’s hunger for pity if all it does is validates them to keep making the same bad choices as before. That doesn’t help them at all.