Many things we can grow have rules or guidelines to start us off, like a chemical formula or the paragraph on the back of a seed packet.
But when it comes to cultivating empathy, where do we begin?
As a med student, Caleb Gardner pondered the topic of empathy
. He saw that empathizing, “while also balancing personal feelings with the necessary clinical objectivity, is neither easy nor straightforward.”
He saw people on a quest to make it easy, trying to fit it into a formula. He attended workshops presenting lists of scripted words and charts with ratios of silence and speaking.
When empathy is reduced to following a script, something vital is lost. Caleb experienced this firsthand during a difficult time in his life.
When his dad was in the ICU because of heart failure, Caleb was discouraged to hear the doctor’s recitation of supportive words that didn’t emanate any feeling
of support, or hide her impatience to get the conversation over with.
Later, he overheard the nurse make an insensitive remark about his dad’s condition, and he came to a surprising realization.
He was more upset by what the doctor did, or rather didn’t do. Caleb saw the nurse’s lapse in tact as “human and forgivable, unlike the doctor's prepackaged expressions and superficial manner which seemed to preclude any meaningful connection and left me feeling far worse.” He felt that a veneer of empathy was worse than a lack of it.
Caleb concluded that “finding a way to connect with another person in the midst of this frightening universal business of living and dying” matters more than the words you use.
That genuine human connection, humming with the earnest wish to understand and help, that’s what empathy is all about. It starts with homing in on the moments we’re sharing with people—moments that may be their most difficult. It’s about tuning in to their emotions, concerns, and needs, and responding when and how we think is best in that moment.
When we shed our day-to-day distractions and snap judgments about the people in front of us, and when we snap out of the autopilot mentality that detaches us from the moment, we can find room for that meaningful connection and lay the groundwork for empathy.
It’s intuitive; it’s an art. Some days we can draw from a deep well of empathy, and some days we feel dry. Like most things, it gets easier with practice. And when you give it your full attention and put your heart into it, you can better find your way.
What are ways you focus on forging connections to boost empathic care?
More Resources for Health Care Professionals
What This Med Student Believes Is Either Totally Naive or Incredibly Possible
Tips for Tapping Into the Power of Empathy
Miss Colorado on Why You’re Way More Than “Just a Nurse”
More Resources on Empathy
Replace Aggression With Empathy, Stephen Hawking Says
Do Me a Favor