The word ‘empathy’ is an abused word. We all like to think we understand it and use it effectively in our patient care, but do we? Even if we’re aware of the potential of listening closely with empathy, how often do we go beneath the surface conversations? As a practitioner, you are constantly hearing both comment and criticism. Stopping and taking the time for a few moments to listen yields great rewards. Let’s explore more meaningful ways to use empathy and commit ourselves to its deeper potential as a professional caregiver, a family member, and a friend.

We can never really “be in another person’s shoes” as the cliché goes, but we can remind ourselves of ways to more deeply understand another person’s situation. In your professional life, listening to understand will enable patients and their caregivers to calm down when they realise the care you are taking with them.

Notice that I said ‘understand’. It’s important to remind ourselves that empathy is not agreeing with someone; rather, it is understanding another’s point of view. We can see where that person’s perception is without holding the same perspective. Awareness that we are ‘understanding’ rather than ‘agreeing’ will free us from a desire to push forward our opinions or become defensive. Freedom to simply listen to understand brings us closer, rather than pulling us apart.

Another common mistake is to assume empathy means giving a personal example of a similar situation when someone offers a personal story/situation/issue. For example, a friend might say, “I’m really having trouble with Dad. He’s becoming more forgetful, and I’m worried that he’s getting worse.” If I respond by saying, “Oh that happened to my Dad too, but he never developed Alzheimer’s”, I take the focus away from my friend to myself.

So what just happened in this example? I took the attention from my friend, interrupted her story and drew attention to myself. I may have thought I was empathic, but I actually created the opposite impact. In its worst form, this is “one ups man ship”. Making this mistake is very common because we relate what someone else is experiencing to our own situation. A better alternative to show our empathy is to wait and, through questions, draw out the rest of the story. You will have a more complete picture of a patient, family member, or friend’s situation.

Time or our perceived lack of it is at the root of not digging beneath the surface. We live in a staccato society where communication is reduced to ‘tweets’ or cryptic comments. One typical example we see every day is the greeting “How are you today?” The response is often, “Fine”. If you take this response at its ‘tip of the iceberg’ level, any understanding of the real situation will be lost. Asking “How are you today?” may be a good starter to the conversation but not as the finish to communication. Going deeper with patient care is critical to understanding both their medical situation and emotional wellness.

You may be asking, “Are you suggesting I need to communicate this way with everyone?” Absolutely not! Your life would be consumed with nothing but empathy. What I am suggesting is when deeper understanding is required in a caregiving or medical situation, when a patient displays concern, when a friend needs your kind ear, extending the conversation is critical.

A better question for the practitioner might be, “What’s on your mind today?” I find this question to be productive because it often starts with what the person is thinking and then develops to deeper issues related to feelings and values.