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Empathy Pillar #2 in The Resilience Rx Framework™

“As a resident seeing a new patient who’d had a benign tumor, which they discovered after a surgery, I had met her in a space where she was a person, instead of a problem to be solved.  Don’t we all want that?”   -- Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

Among the many poignant qualities of the memoir When Breath Becomes Air is its humanness. The book is a study of empathy as we follow Dr. Kalanithi’s journey from a young neurosurgeon who treats the dying to becoming a patient facing mortality as he fights a terminal cancer diagnosis.

We understand both sides, which is what empathy requires.

Patients are vulnerable. And there’s no escaping such vulnerability since it is intrinsic to the human condition. I can distinctly remember times when I felt supported and listened to in a physician’s office or hospital, and times of abandonment when my healthcare providers stared at their screens more than me.

Among the challenges facing the healthcare industry right now is the need to create more value-based care by improving patient satisfaction and quality.

Enter empathy. A skill that 92 percent of employees believe remains undervalued, according to the 2018 State of Workplace Empathy report.

In healthcare, empathy is about understanding a patient’s feelings and perspective, and  communicating that understanding to the patient. It’s about giving support and healing without doing all the footwork for the patient, which is his or her responsibility. Numerous studies demonstrate the link between empathy and better patient outcomes, and today, an increasing number of medical schools are taking steps to teach empathy and other skills traditionally deemed “soft,” but that actually impact the bottom line in terms of self-care, patient engagement, satisfaction, and outcomes.

The good news is that empathy, like resilience, is a learned skill.  

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Can you think of a time when you practiced empathy with success?

What was your takeaway from this experience?

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Here are three ways that empathy builds resilience for health care practitioners, teams, and institutions:

Self-care: We don’t always make the connection between self-care and empathy but in order to  be better caregivers it’s essential that we also meet our own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Self-care ignites empathy, which builds resilience.

Listening to understand: When we listen to understand, our perspective shifts from provider to patient, just as Paul Kalanithi’s did when he was able to connect with his patient person to person. Dr. Kalanithi took off his surgeon cloak for the moment and allowed himself to be present to his patient’s fears and feelings. When we listen to understand, we don't interrupt, tune the patient out by looking away, or attach judgments. This improves  satisfaction, patient compliance, and outcomes.  

Better communication. Empathy allows us to communicate in a more genuine manner. This is the aspect of empathy that is sometimes hardest for providers given the demands on their time. By learning to use empathetic language such as “tell me more”  and “I’m sorry that you are feeling frustrated,” we  build more trusting, respectful relationships.

Next week we’ll look at Reasoned Decision Making, pillar 3 in The Resilience Framework.™


Nancy Sharp is a keynote speaker, trainer, and award-winning author focused on resiliency in the workplace. She brings 30 years’ experience in the communications industry, along with expertise as a CEO speechwriter and coach. Nancy holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and authored the bestselling memoir Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living, recipient of the Colorado Book Award, and a book for children and families called Because the Sky is Everywhere. Learn more about Nancy’s programs and background at www.NancySharp.net or contact us at www.hspeakers.com.