NLP for people who like to think for themselves

Sympathy vs. Respect (2)

The “Sympathy vs. Respect?” blog article produced lots of online and email responses.  One common theme can be summarised:  “I should be doing something even if the unhappy or unwell person doesn’t want it!”

Sam and Ulrica

I have made a composite of the comments and come up with a typical scenario:

1. Uneasy Ulrica is unwell or unhappy. Ulrica has explicitly said that she does not want sympathy. Nor does she want people empathising with her. Nor does she want people telling her how she ‘must be’ feeling.

2. Her friend, Sympathising Sam, naturally wants to respect and support Ulrica’s wishes. But Sam also wants to let Ulrica know that she is loved and supported and cared for. Sam feels that giving Ulrica the space to do things her way (as was suggested in my first blog article) would be equivalent to abandoning Ulrica to her difficulties. Nevertheless, as Sympathising Sam well recognises, continuously asking her how she is doing would feel intrusive and probing.

The NLP Meta Model

Using the wonderful NLP Meta Model we recognise that Uneasy Ulrica’s Complex Equivalence for ‘support’ (i.e. the meaning or significance she attaches to this word) is I am being supported when I am given space to do things my way.

And this is exactly what Sympathising Sam did. This is great for Ulrica because Sam is matching Uneasy Ulrica’s needs – and her explicit request.


… on the other hand Sympathising Sam’s Complex Equivalence for ‘support’ is different to Ulrica’s!  And her’s is right for Sam though not for Ulrica.

In Sympathising Sam’s world ‘support’ is equivalent to, or means, letting Ulrica know that she is being supported by Sam. (And it’s likely that, in Sympathising Sam’s world, she knows she is doing the ‘support’ thing effectively when the other person reassures her that her version of ‘support’ is working and is appreciated.)

‘I’ve done the right thing’

So once she has demonstrated her version of support in this way Sympathising Sam can relax knowing she has done the ‘right thing’. Now she doesn’t need to feel guilty about being happy even though Uneasy Ulrica is having a hard time! Now Sam can that she is feel wanted and appreciated by Uneasy Ulrica.

Selfish sympathy?

The problem with this approach is that it is self-centred. It isn’t ‘other person centred’.

This approach is about Sympathising Sam’s feelings rather than Uneasy Ulrica’s. It is about what can Sam do to make herself feel at ease rather than what is best for Ulrica.

What’s more, rather than helping or easing the burden of Ulrica’s feelings, Sympathising Sam has added to this burden. Now instead of being allowed to get on with dealing with her own situation – and in her own personal and unique way – Ulrica has to pay attention to whether or not she is doing an adequate job of reassuring Sam!

If we truly care for someone this can often includes the process of associating into, or physically imagining, what we believe they are experiencing. This kinaesthetic association is risky because it is a Mind Read (that Meta Model, again!) – it’s imposing our imaginings on the other person.

But if we really care for the other person the only valid question to ask ourselves is ‘what do they consider is right for them!’

What people ‘should’ feel

Sympathising Sam’s approach is supported, or perhaps is the result of,  the old-style, traditional counsellors who have an un-challengeable recognition of what people (i.e. absolutely every person on the planet!) need when unhappy or unhealthy. They even have, for example, formulaic ‘stages’ which a person must go through in resolving grief – otherwise, in their unchallengeable view, the person can be potentially ‘damaged’ through being ‘in denial.’

Now while this is good for the counsellors’ business, and for their bank account, it does not recognise the autonomy of their client/customer.  Irrespective of what the customer is experiencing, irrespective of how they feel, and irrespective of their wishes, they are told how they ‘should’ be feeling.

No room for autonomy. No room for personal integrity.

The NLP approach is simple

The NLP approach simply involves asking the other person (i.e. the person who is unwell or unhappy) what they want. It then involves taking into account their verbal and, especially, their non-verbal response – and respecting this.

  1. Simon Roskrow on 18th November 2009 at 9:49 AM

    Great follow-up Reg, but I think it might need another one as well! Whilst reading through, the thought that was nagging at the back of my mind was just how “honest” Ulrica’s response is/might be.

    You’ve covered off a lot about Sam, and the difference between her thinking she is doing the right thing for someone else, whilst actually (potentially) being selfish, but there are cases where this (not necessarily conscious) lack of self-understanding (I hesitate to use the word integrity in this context) is as significant, or more significant, in the person who is unwell or unhappy.

    The two challenges are (a) are they really aware of what they need, and (b) are they communicating that in a way that is at all readable by anyone else. I know, from experience, that some people in tough times (and I’ll admit to having done this myself) actually “enjoy” playing the unwell/unhappy role, and it can be incredibly difficult to read this and therefore act in a way that is appropriate for them.

    You refer to this aspect a little in your last paragraph – taking into account their verbal and, especially, their non-verbal response, but at times of difficulty, this can be a particularly tricky thing to do.

    A follow-up on really understanding people’s communication at these (hopefully) unusual times would certainly help me.

  2. Reg on 18th November 2009 at 10:02 PM

    Hi Simon: I think you may be confusing Uneasy Ulrica with Suffer-in-Silence Steve. Ulrica is quite clear – she wants to deal with things her own way. She does not wnat sympathy.

    However poor ole’ Steve is adopting an attention-seeking stance. He will suffer in silence only as long as he has an audience. He wants them to force their attention on him – which he gladly accepts while protesting that he does not!

    Don’t-worry-about-Me Declan runs a similar pattern – he insists that “you go off and have your fun – I don’t want to be a burden to you! (Sigh)”

    We are truly a complex and facinating species, us human beings 🙂