October 20, 2010 | | Comments 0
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Can empathy be learned?

Of course.  That’s how people become empathetic in the first place.  Children are not naturally empathetic.  They are largely self-centered beings whose main focus is on getting their own needs met at all costs.  Much of “growing up” has to do with moving from a role of taking, to one of also giving, of learning to set our own thoughts, feelings, and needs aside sometimes, so we can make space for those of other people.  This ability, of course, is the key to feeling and expressing empathy.

But what if a person did not learn these skills as they grew up?  What if expressing empathy doesn’t come naturally to them?  Are they then hopeless?  Of course not.  If they want to learn to be empathetic, more often than not, they can.

Reasons people don’t show empathy that have nothing to do with a lack of caring

Many people feel empathy and really care, but don’t show it.  Here are five scenarios with reasons that I can think of, and no doubt there are more:

  • At the moment, John’s personal stress, anxieties and preoccupations are all-consuming.  At this moment, his racing mind prevents him from tuning in to the other person’s feelings, despite the fact that he is capable of it.
  • Susan is afraid she might be wrong about the feeling she thinks the other person is having, and that if she guesses wrong, this will make the person angry.  So, she doesn’t acknowledge their feelings.
  • Ralph learned at an early age that big boys don’t cry and that it’s touchy-feeling and not macho to talk about feelings.
  • Helene is afraid she will intrude into the person’s space and violate their privacy.  So, she feels for them, but says nothing.
  • Edith is afraid she won’t know how to respond if the other person proceeds to talk about their feelings even more.  So, she doesn’t acknowledge their feelings in the first place.
  • Manny feels he’s way too busy to listen to people.
  • Deep down, Jane feels that if she gives, she’ll have nothing left for herself.

People can learn to feel and express empathy if they address their personal barriers and decide that they want to be more effective by tuning in to their caring and communicating with empathy.

So, how can you help people capable of empathy express it?

The best way is to label it.  Distinguish that the focus of attention is different between empathy and sympathy.  Empathy takes effort.  The focus of attention is completely on the other person. You read verbal and nonverbal cues and identify the feeling you think the other person is having.  Sympathy involves feelings you have in response to the feelings the other person is having. The focus of attention is on your experience in response to the other person’s experience.

A few tips:

  • Don’t rush to pass judgment. Don’t assume people who don’t express empathy don’t care.  Operate on the assumption that they do care and need help expressing empathy so people feel it on the receiving end.
  • Communicate that there is value in expressing empathy. Discuss the benefits for patients and families. Encourage empathy, not sympathy.
  • Engage people in discussing what holds them back from expressing their empathy.  Help them come to terms with that, so that they open their minds to experimenting with more direct expression.
  • Build the skill of “acknowledging feelings.” Help people practice on identifying feelings from nonverbal and verbal cues.
  • Before interactions, remind yourself and others to be present and tuned in to the other person so you will notice their feelings.
  • Expand your feeling vocabulary.  Most people use four primary feeling words – sad, mad, glad, and happy.  This isn’t enough.  The more accurate and descriptive you can be when acknowledging a person’s feelings, the more powerful for them.  Relieved, worried, scared, disgusted, impatient, anxious, delighted, skeptical; these words go way beyond sad, mad, glad and happy.
  • Remind people that although expressing empathy might be hard for them for whatever reason, it is healing for patients and families.  And the truth is, expressing empathy aligns us with our caring nature and is healing for us too.

Click here for concrete approaches to developing “Empathy Fitness for Leaders”.


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Wendy Leebov About the Author: Wendy Leebov is a passionate advocate for creating healing environments for patients, families and the entire healthcare team. A mission-driven expert, Leebov provides outcomes-based consulting services, culture change strategies with healthcare organizations, training and tools for enhancing the patient and employee experience. With more than 30 years of experience and skills in communication, training design and delivery, she is known for making hard skills accessible and motivating people to stretch and apply skills which set them apart. Author of 12 books for healthcare, Wendy has produced two groundbreaking video-based skill building systems that educate and empower all staff to deliver the exceptional patient experience consistently by excelling at caring communication. Wendy writes a free monthly e-newsletter - HeartBeat on the Quality Patient Experience - packed with concrete tips and tools for managers who champion the great patient and employee experience. Visit Wendy’s website for more great tips and tools.

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