Part Two: Demonstrating Empathy

Last week, I shared about a conversation I had with a man at dinner. This man trains Oncology Residents and, while he is truly impressed with the dedication, talent, and level of clinical and scientific education his recent students possess, he lamented the poor level of skill his students exhibit in their ability to connect, relate, and communicate effectively with their patients. He feels strongly that, these days, empathy is under-valued and under-taught in our medical education system.

In last week’s stretch, I shared how important the skill of empathy is and how to motivate your team members to improve their level of empathy.

This week I want to talk about what this looks like in practice.

So how do we do it? How do we show empathy?

Empathy is often confused with sympathy, but they are very different. Sympathy is the feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Generally, empathy is defined as “The act of correctly acknowledging the emotional state of another without experiencing that state oneself.” Empathy in a healthcare setting is defined as a) the ability to understand a patient’s situation, perspective, and feelings, b) to communicate that understanding and check it’s accuracy, and 3) to act on that understanding in a helpful, therapeutic way. In other words, we feel sympathy, but we demonstrate empathy.

Being effective at empathy requires two things: empathetic understanding and empathetic action. Both are essential to understanding a patient’s condition, level of understanding, motivations and desires, as well as higher levels of patient compliance.

This week, to demonstrate more empathy with your patients whether on the telephone or in person, focus on these things:

1)Be truly present.
Listen deeply. Make ongoing eye contact. Soften your facial expression. Smile.

2)Shift to neutral.
Check and challenge your own prejudices, stereotypes, and judgements. Everyone, no matter how different they are from us, deserves respect and wants to be understood.

3)Get personal.
In a good way. Jot down a few personal details to remember. Ask about how they are doing, not just medically. When people feel known, they feel better.

4)Question and clarify.
Ask clarifying questions to get clarity on their situation, expectations, and concerns. Repeat back what you heard and ask if you got it right. What else would they add?

5)Support them.
Your patients are feeling a wide range of emotions, not only about the reason for this visit, but just life in general. They’re in pain. They had to arrange for someone to babysit their kids. They are living paycheck to paycheck. They are worried about a scary diagnosis. Whatever it is, meet them where they are. Remind them that its normal to feel the way they do or to have lots of questions. They more you understand where they’re coming from, the deeper you can connect.

6)Pay attention.
Watch for non-verbal clues. They are harder to fake than words. Picking their nails, avoiding eye contact, slouching toward the door can be signs that someone is not “fine”… even if they say they are.

Empathy is not a soft skill. It’s the foundation of our work and essential to what we do. You and your team can learn to offer it better and to make it a standard by which you operate. It is quite simple really. It just involves the golden rule to treat others the way you would want to be treated. But, it requires you to see people as people, not just patients.

Watch this video with your team. Discuss ways you could improve your level of empathy with patients… and with each other. Remember, patient outcomes improve and team burnout decreases. A true win/win.