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Empathy Takes Courage

Posted by Kristin Baird on December 12th, 2017 • No Comments »

We hear so much about empathy as it relates to the patient experience. And for good reason. Empathy is what makes the science of medicine human. It’s the care in healthcare. But empathy is often lumped in with softness, which is sometimes viewed as weakness. I contend that it’s just the opposite. It takes courage to be empathetic.

Here’s the thing about courage. Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear. Not the absence of fear.” This is an important distinction to make. It takes courage to demonstrate compassion and empathy for others. Having empathy requires a certain degree of vulnerability. This is where heart meets courage. It takes courage to allow yourself to step into the emotion – to feel and to empathize.  Real success will never be free of fear, but learning to move past it. And I do believe you can learn this.

A few years ago I was working with a physician who was a brilliant diagnostician. “Dr. Smith” could assess and diagnose conditions quickly and move on to the treatment plan almost before the patient was finished describing their symptoms. The problem was – his patients couldn’t stand him. His surveys were the lowest in the system which was embarrassing for both him and his partners. He wasn’t a heartless person, he was simply objective-driven. He believed people came to him with a physical problem and that his objective was to diagnose and treat. Period.

When I first met with Dr. Smith, he expected me to approach his “case” the same way he approached his – diagnose and prescribe a plan as efficiently as possible. Instead I asked him to describe what he hoped patients would say about him and their time with him. Of course he focused on clinical outcomes. So I asked him to describe what he hoped the patients would feel about their encounters. It took some digging but I found that he really did want them to feel that he cared.

As we talked, he revealed that it was hard for him to let down his guard and to demonstrate compassion and empathy. During the conversation I tried to point out that a chief complaint isn’t really about the physical symptom, but often about the impact that symptom has on a person’s life. To take a moment to recognize that makes a patient feel validated and understood. He admitted that getting into people’s feelings was scary for him. (He used other terms but scary is my diagnosis.)

I told him that it takes courage to demonstrate compassion and empathy for others. Having empathy requires a certain degree of vulnerability. This is where empathy meets courage. It takes courage to allow yourself to step into the emotion – to feel and to empathize.

We practiced some empathy statements and some non-verbal behaviors as well. I jokingly said, “Take two minutes for empathy,” but the truth is, that is a great place to start. It takes practice and consciousness. And chances are, you won’t change behavior over night. The secret is to keep going back and trying it again and again.

Author Mary Anne Radamacher said, Courage doesn’t always Roar. Sometimes courage is that quiet voice at the end of the day saying, I will try again tomorrow.”

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