By Erin Whalen
is a buzzword these days. It seems to be everywhere from publications such as Forbes and The New York Times to countless LinkedIn articles mentioning empathy’s power and
But in the real world--in the hard work you do helping people die with dignity — is empathy something that fits? And at what cost? What makes it worth the effort? In other words, what’s in it for you?
Empathy does have power; it can help ease your day, as well as those of your patients’ and their loved ones. It’s a shortcut to connection, and if people feel connected to you, they are more likely to listen to your recommendations and trust you as the expert on the death process.
we dive into the three things you can expect after integrating empathy into
your communication, let’s first define empathy. The research team at Sidney
Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia provides
the following definition of empathy: “a predominantly cognitive — as opposed to
affective or emotional — attribute that involves an understanding — as opposed
to feeling — of patients’ concerns, combined with a capacity to communicate
this understanding and an intention to help by preventing or alleviating pain
and suffering.” Simplified, empathy is the ability to understand another’s
perspective and communicate this understanding with the intention of alleviating
1. Empathy will save you time.
If empathy requires extra work on your part--recognizing and expressing how others feel--how can it possibly save you time?
For one thing, empathy helps someone feel seen and heard. Have you ever been in a conversation where a person kept bringing up the same point, or returning to the same part of the story and couldn’t seem to move on from it? It’s possible that their behavior was driven by their desire to feel seen or heard. As humans, one of our strongest wants is to be understood. If someone feels understood because you have empathized with them, they won’t harp on the same point. They will relax, knowing that you “get it.” On the other hand, not empathizing can lead to the broken record phenomenon we all want to avoid.
Empathy is also a shortcut to the heart of the matter. When you are working with those who are dying and their loved ones, sometimes empathy can get people to a sense of understanding and peace much sooner by helping to gently reveal the essence of a person’s situation or story. For example, knowing the end is near, a son might be incredibly afraid of watching his mom die. He might show this fear by asking many questions, wringing his hands, and shaking his head as he hears your answers. By gently and compassionately providing some empathy, you can take the edge off his fear and help him work towards next steps. Something like this might do the trick: “Listen, I know this isn’t easy to hear. You love your mom so much. You’re afraid of watching her die, and you might even feel some guilt about being afraid in the first place. I’m here for you, and I am happy to answer any questions you have.” This can help ease his mind a little and he will be more open to continuing the conversation.
2. Empathy will form stronger connections.
you empathize with another person and really see where they are coming from,
your connection will naturally deepen. Connection leads to trust. People who
trust their medical providers are more likely to be compliant.
Imagine that your patient’s daughter is in denial about her dad’s need to be on hospice and she also insists he shouldn’t be given pain killers, fearing that he will become addicted. You have the medical knowledge and experience to recognize that her worries are not cause for concern, but you just can't seem to convince her of that.
Empathizing with the daughter by naming her emotions and sharing that you want to alleviate her father’s suffering can help her trust you more. You might try something like this: “You’ve had a lifetime with your dad, and you know him best. You’re worried about his tendency towards addiction, and you’re very hesitant about morphine.” (Pro tip: pausing at this point and allowing her to react is one of the most empathetic things you can do). After hearing more of her perspective, you can proceed with additional empathy and a permission statement: “I can see how much you love your dad and want what’s best for him. In my professional opinion, morphine will actually help not harm him at this point. Would you like to hear more about my thinking?”
Empathy creates the opportunity for a dialogue to occur and for common ground to be found. You both want what’s best for the patient, her father, but it may take a bit of empathetic conversation to get there. Once you do, however, it will not be time wasted. When she trusts you, she will be more willing to listen to your expertise and follow the plan.
3. Empathy can help your days be filled with less stress and more fulfillment.
Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s School of Medicine, uses a hand model of the brain to talk about emotional regulation. When we are in a heightened emotional state, our prefrontal cortex, where rational thought occurs, is not easily accessible to us. How do we get back to our rational selves? With empathy.
Let’s face it-in the field of death and dying, emotions can get very raw, very quickly. If a patient or family member is agitated, your mirror neurons may be firing, and your stress level can increase as a result. Using empathy can help you and your patient to de-escalate. It might take multiple empathy statements before someone can calm down, so be prepared to provide the compassionate, calming presence they need. Sometimes, the most powerful empathy you can offer is silence.
A word of caution: empathy is not a limitless asset. We all can give only what we are capable of giving. Empathy fatigue is a real phenomenon, and it’s important to know when you need to step back and prioritize self-care.
When you think about some of the benefits of empathy—closer connection, recognition of another person’s humanity, deepened levels of trust—you can’t help but see that your days will be more fulfilling. You’ll be reminded of why you pursued this field in the first place, most likely some version of “to help people.” By incorporating empathy into conversations with your patients, their families, and your colleagues, you will most definitely be “helping people,” yourself included.