The Institute for Healthcare Excellence President and CEO William J. Maples M.D. Co-Founds National Taskforce for Humanity in Healthcare

Learn more

The clarifying lens of empathy

What empathy adds to your daily interactions with patients and team

Empathy enables you to put yourself in your patient’s shoes. Your ability to see and feel the situation from another person’s perspective can help you grow as a caregiver.

Some are concerned that it can also make you feel drained and perhaps even compromise objectivity. How do you allow empathy to inform your work and do your job effectively?

First, what is empathy? Amid the many academic interpretations and debates regarding what empathy really is, Patrick Kneeland, M.D., Executive Medical Director for Patient and Provider Experience at University of Colorado Health and consulting faculty at The Institute for Healthcare Excellence (The IHE), prefers to keep it simple: “Empathy is connecting without judgment with another person around the shared experience of being human.”

Empathy brings connectivity and a new dimension to caregiving. Read Pierce, M.D., from the Institute for Healthcare Quality, Safety, and Efficiency at University of Colorado Denver, and consulting faculty at The IHE, sees empathy as a driver of change.

“Change is not possible without deep respect for the human experience of what we strive to do for and with others,” Dr. Pierce says. He sees the connections between patient care and empathy/quality as the same pursuit: “a respectful, deliberate connection between people on the journey to improve, together, our current state.”

Born or made?
In that mode of collaboration, how do you encourage empathy in yourself and others? Are you born with empathy or do you cultivate it?

“Our best role models and highest performing teams ‘do’ empathy all the time,” says Dr. Pierce. “People with empathy not only model — they also practice cultivating empathy for their own benefit and to support sustainable performance in the pursuits that matter most to them.”

Dr. Pierce views empathy as part of what we explore and experience in pursuit of our own humanity. He places resilience, engagement with challenging work that brings joy (flow), compassion, and other feelings and behaviors we consider virtues, on the same plane.

Either and both
Within our human constraints, is there a need to balance our own well-being and empathy for others? “I think of well-being and empathy less as competitors — one at the expense of the other — and more as interdependent aspects of what it means to be human,” says Dr. Pierce. “Most often, building your well-being allows for greater access to empathy, and the opposite is also true.”

At some point, empathy is internalized, not as a competition (privileging empathy over other attributes) but as a sort of default setting. “Empathy of its own accord is not something to do less of, just as asking the brain to think fewer thoughts misses the mark,” Dr. Pierce explains. “Rather, the question is how we focus and harness this remarkable power more effectively.”

The clarifying lens
Dr. Kneeland adds an interesting metaphor — picture yourself choosing between lenses during an eye exam.

“I like to think of empathy as a clarifying lens, rather than something that clouds objectivity. Seeking to understand in more depth how other people are experiencing a particular situation can add incredible insight into the nature of a problem, and also offer surprising paths forward for improvement or healing. The best clinicians I know demonstrate empathy in all that they do. Same with the best leaders.”

From this point of view, your capacity for empathy and your capacity for objectivity are not mutually exclusive. They can go hand in hand. In the words of Dr. Kneeland: “There are multiple things that limit our empathy. One is certainly the myth that empathy somehow clouds objective judgment or impedes getting the ‘real work’ done. There are both intrinsic and extrinsic reward systems in our workplaces that reinforce that myth. In such environments, it takes considerable energy to maintain an empathic stance. Empathy begets empathy — and the opposite is also true. The healthcare world is no exception.”

Learn how you can expand your capacity for empathy with Dr. Pierce and Dr. Kneeland at The IHE Regional Summit in San Diego on April 30, 2018. Get more details and register here.