The Sin of Sympatigo

Dr Matthew Doré, Palliative Care Consultant Northern Ireland Hospice and Belfast Trust

SYMPATIGO DEFINITION: v. To listen intently and sympathize with your colleagues when they request assistance, and then to simply, and completely, forget about it. n. The ability to sympathize with, yet ignore, requests for help.1

In my ignorance I looked up a word ‘sympatiCO’ and mis-spelt it, ‘sympatiGO’ and was struck by what I found. And no, dear reader, it is not a word that has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary (yet), but it may make it into a palliative care blog, ok? And for good reason!

I have been guilty of sympatigo. Excellent communication skills (even if I say so myself), drawing out trust and rapport with my patients. Helping articulate the issues, understand emotions, dissect the underlying psychology. The patient or relatives feel reassured, encouraged, safe, but (and it’s a big but), I go on to forget their simple request.

Whether that is to move the bed outside, or get a fresh cup of tea, or change the TV channel, even larger stuff as phoning a relative or colleague. Is this absent mindlessness on my part? Or indicative of my internal priorities? Is my treatment of patients actually at surface level? A show of technical communication ‘brilliance’ with nothing underlying it?

I was struck by a realisation that ‘empathy’ in and of itself is simply the ability to understand and feel what someone else does. Having empathy is simply the gradating scale to understand and feel for people. Whether nature or nurture gives us this skill is beside the point, I suspect there is a mixture of both, but what empathy isn’t is the decision what to do with the information gleaned. It is the persons morality which dictates what someone does with the information that their ‘empathy’ gives to them.

I want to be clear I am not a psychologist, and this is my personal speculation, but I see a difference between someone being socially unacceptable but oblivious to the rightness or wrongness of their action, compared to the more vindictive action of targeting someone on the basis of knowing it will hurt them. You can target someone more accurately both for good or ill, if you understand them. An example being your siblings or family, you know extremely well over many years. Socially, it is because you have empathy and you can understand people and pick up their feelings quicker. Thus, I speculate empathy is merely a sense to foster and hone, but the true measure is that of morality and ethics.

Within our training, for all our staff, it often expounds empathy as the golden attribute but is missing the final step. We should focus of morality, ethics and the ethos of palliative care for our staff. I would argue our internal intention needs fostered just as much as tools, senses, and methodologies in communication. I have heard remarkably few talks on ‘why palliative care have the ethos it does.’

Sympatigo, a mechanistic capability, but a front, is potentially an ego centric ideal, feeding ourselves which we never openly discuss. Are we allowed to take pleasure in our jobs? Yes of course. Are we protecting ourselves from hurt? Probably in part. Are we secretly making ourselves the ‘centre’? This is what I want to expose and rid myself of. Suggestions on a postcard.



  1. Sympatigo definition, Accessed February 2023


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