Empathy is a complex blend of cognitive, emotional and behavioral domains. While we humans may have varying emotional responses to situations, we all crave respect and we all appreciate when another person "gets" us. If it is true that "Respect is like air: if you take it away, it is all people can think about” (Kerry Patterson, author of Crucial Conversations), then empathy is the behavioral manifestation of respect.
When we understand another person's perspective (the cognitive domain), we gain an essential window into their behavior. Such understanding is necessary but not sufficient for effective interactions, particularly in healthcare, where we work. The deadpan, unemotional model of TV’s fictional Detective Joe Friday to stick to "Just the facts, ma'am" discounts emotions. The literature shows that people who feel their emotions are not acknowledged in healthcare interactions feel disrespected.
By contrast, an empathetic approach that acknowledges emotions strengthens that human bond and allows the business at hand to proceed. It turns out, it does not take any extra time for clinicians (or detectives!) to acknowledge an individual’s feelings.
This is where the behavioral domain comes in. If you understand a person’s feelings and feel connected, it is important to communicate that understanding and connection. Simple techniques such as eye contact, reflective listening, refraining from interrupting, pausing, checking for understanding and an open stance are learnable and teachable skills. Anyone can master them—after all, we all do them to some extent. The trick is to deploy them consistently, so that they become habitual.
Empathy is at the heart of trauma-informed care. When we bring curiosity and deep listening to our interactions, we show respect. When we suspend judgment, we can more effectively promote healing and avoid harm to vulnerable individuals. IHC offers experiential learning opportunities to strengthen empathy conveyance skills.
The nonprofit Institute for Healthcare Communication, based in New Haven, Connecticut, has been creating experiential skills development programs since 1987. Our newest course, The Empathy Effect: Countering Bias to Improve Health Outcomes, is now available as a full-day Workshop-PLUS program, with an AM workshop (introducing key concepts and practicing counter-cues to judgment) and a PM of skills practice (using trained simulated patients for contextually-relevant cases and balanced feedback). Visit us online for further information and a program application.
View video: The Empathy Effect