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Seeking Sympathy


Techniques > Conversation techniques > Conversational Traps > Seeking Sympathy

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



One reason people seek out others is for comfort, for a sympathetic ear to listen to their problems. It has been said that 'A trouble shared is a trouble halved' and indeed when we tell someone else what is on our mind we can feel better, especially if they offer words of comfort.

When we pour out our troubles to our friends (or even a convenient stranger), it may help us but it does not necessarily help them, especially if we over-do it.


I've had a bad week. First, Julie lost my phone, then...

Simon's left me. I'm so sad. 


When you tell others the things that are upsetting you, you trigger empathy so they feel bad too, especially if you display distress, sadness or other emotions. This is a form of projection where you are trying to give people your 'bad stuff' so you can feel better.

Being on the receiving end of complaint can be uncomfortable. Most people will accept a certain amount of this as it is polite and friendly to do so, and gives them social credit which they can spend in reciprocal moaning for which you are them obliged to offer sympathy in return.

There is a limit to how much you can ask of someone else before you reciprocate. How long this is depends very much on the individual relationship. If you seek too much, then their esteem for you will decline as they look for a way to escape.

The trap of sympathy I seeking is often that we are so bound up with our own troubles that we do not notice that the other person is becoming less sympathetic. Worse, if we do spot that something is amiss, we may speed up and prevent them from interrupting as we desperately try to get it all out.

To get sympathy, first think about the relationship and whether this person would willingly offer you the shoulder you seek. Beware of thinking they would offer you the same sympathy you would offer them. Also avoid thinking of friends as people who do things for you--rather think of friendship as a reciprocal relationship where liking and trust extends what each may give at once, but which must still be repaid.

Then moderate what you say to fit into what sympathy they are likely to be able to offer. As necessary reduce the duration and emotional intensity of what you say. Keep an eye on their body language and if they start looking bored or unhappy, then back down for now and ask after them.

Another sympathy trap is where people in conversation start competing with one another for the most terrible thing that has happened to them. As the awfulness escalates, sympathy fades as each person retreats inside themself to both escape the bad stuff being projected at them and plot their next statement.

See also

Sympathy (interrogation), Empathy

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