The importance of empathy


By Skills for Health | 25 March 2019

The difference that empathy can make

All of you will have found yourselves in public situations where powerful emotions bubble to the surface, e.g. on the phone to a call centre or waiting for a delayed train. Often even if it doesn’t change the outcome of the situation, if you are dealt with in an open, honest and respectful way, you feel more in control and able to cope.

The same is true for your patients. As a healthcare worker, you will see people at their most vulnerable, physically and emotionally. Most patients don’t come into hospital wanting to be rude and obnoxious, however if they are left feeling that no-one cares about what they are going through, emotions can explode, and you may be the likely target.

Without doubt, communication is the key. And this doesn’t just mean informing individuals as to what is going on, how long they will have to wait etc. Yes, the facts are important, but equally so is the way you talk to your patients.

What does empathy really mean?

No matter what circumstance in life, when you feel someone ‘gets you’ it is much easier to strike up a relationship and trust them. This is no different in the healthcare environment. When you relate in an open, honest and empathic way you are more likely to gain the trust and respect of those in your care.

Yet, despite being a commonly used term, it is important to understand exactly what empathy is. It’s often described as ‘being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes’ and try to get a sense of how they may be thinking or feeling. It doesn’t matter if you have been in a similar situation, you must be able to put aside your thoughts and opinions and really try to see things from the other person’s perspective.

As such, being empathetic means thinking beyond your own view of the world and recognising that people are likely to rationalise and act differently to how you would.

Why is empathy important?

Empathy is one of the fundamental building blocks of communication. In a healthcare environment it allows for connections and trust to be formed quickly, offering benefits to both you and your patients.

  • When patients can quickly establish that you are able to resonate with their thoughts, feelings and overall well-being they are more likely to trust you. This in turn allows for more efficient and tailored personal care.
  • When you can put aside your own feelings and communicate emphatically with your patients you are likely to feel a greater sense of satisfaction and fulfilment from your caring role.

Show you care

Even though you may get on well with your patients, its important to remember that you are still in a position of responsibility. So, you must find the balance between communicating in an empathic way and maintaining your professional boundaries.

Here are some tips:

  • Listen: so often we hear what we want to hear instead of what’s being said. But if you are really trying to see things from the other person’s point of view you need to develop what’s called ‘active listening’ skills. To really focus on someone else you need to slow down and find a way of quietening the distracting thoughts in your head.
  • Don’t make assumptions: when you assume something, you are using your own preconceived notions and applying these to the other person’s situation, essentially the opposite of actively listening to a patient and attempting to understand the world from their point of view.
  • Be inquisitive: use open-ended questions and give patients time to answer. Try to avoid making generalising, sometimes patients may offer information that you weren’t expecting.
  • Be flexible: one approach won’t suit everyone!  Avoid medical jargon and try to use language that is appropriate to the age and culture of your patients.
  • Empower: your role is to offer guidance and information, yet it is also to provide space for your patient to decide what is best for her/him.
  • Watch your body language: are your words implying that you are interested but your body is saying you are in hurry?
  • Be mindful: yes, you will have lots to do but try to stay focused on the present, i.e. right now you are talking to this person.
  • Be honest: sometimes you may need to cut a conversation short. When this happens, stay calm and briefly explain why.
  • Be kind: no matter how busy you are there is always room for kindness. Remember that you can’t change how others behave but you can change how you respond to people or situations.

Whilst it may, at times, be ok to voice your own thoughts, this must only be done if it the aim is to help your patient. Phrases such as ‘that must have felt awful for you’, ‘I’m very sorry that you felt like that’ and ‘I would feel the same in that situation’ can help to express empathy and may be appreciated by your patients. However, it’s not appropriate to talk at length about similar situations that you have been in.

Empathy versus detached concern

  • Empathy means you are trying to imagine how the other person feels by placing yourself in their situation and sensing their emotions.
  • Detached concern is significantly different: you understand how a patient feels and can contextualise their problems, but you are not connected emotionally to the situation.

Remember that every patient is different so it’s important to recognise when detached concern is needed over empathy. Though many patients will prefer empathetic understanding, there is a chance that some people will respond negatively to this type of communication, e.g. by becoming defensive.

In these situations, patients may better to direct questions in normal tones of voice as opposed to the softer communication usually associated with empathetic speech. You can still be kind and show concern.

Empathy as a communication skill

Constantly being empathetic may seem difficult to caregivers, especially people who are new to the job or are in training. However, it is important to remember that empathy is a skill and will take time to develop. So, don’t be hard on yourself!

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