What does it mean to be an empath? In an article published in Medical News Today, It was stated that empathy is an individual who has a higher level of empathy than others. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share in the feelings of another. Empathy connects us to others on an emotional and cognitive level. Things hit differently when you feel what others are feeling.
Have you ever noticed how many empaths there are in dentistry? The best doctors and hygienists are known for being compassionate. Empathic clinicians report greater job satisfaction, make fewer errors, and have more loyal patients. Empathy is the attribute that differentiates between caring for patients and treating patients.
The Empathy and Relational Science Research Program conducted a study aimed at determining how patients perceive empathetic doctors. Volunteers were instructed to imagine they had received bad medical news. Their disease was not responding to treatment and surgery was indicated. The group was split in half, with one portion of them being shown images of a doctor seated eye-to-eye, without the distraction of technology, a sincere facial expression, and open body posture; all strong indicators of nonverbal empathy.
The second half of participants were shown images of a doctor displaying behaviors indicative of a non-empathetic nonverbal demeanor: standing above the patient, arms crossed, little-to-no eye contact, technological distractions, and a neutral facial expression.
The participants were asked to classify the doctor on perceived warmth and competence. The doctors who demonstrated nonverbal empathy were perceived as warmer and more competent than the non-empathetic doctors. Interestingly, the results were not skewed by the doctor’s attire, indicating that lab coats and stethoscopes do not influence perceived capability and competence. The results suggest improving patient-clinician relationships requires more than wearing a lab coat and scrubs. It calls for strengthening empathic skills.
While empathy is mostly perceived as a desirable trait, especially in healthcare, if not properly managed, it can have a boomerang effect on its possessor. If proper boundaries are not in place, empaths may become overwhelmed by the feelings of others. When this occurs, they may carry the emotional weight of others to their detriment. Empaths must learn to disconnect from owning others’ pain, disassociating themselves into a place of observation as a means of protecting their own emotional health.
While empathy functions within higher levels of emotional intelligence, not every practitioner can tap into it easily. Finding ways to cultivate our empathic side benefits interpersonal relationships, patient relationships, patient compliance, and personal satisfaction.
How does one develop and foster empathy? Cultivate a genuine interest in others
Become tuned in to others around you. Dig deeper than asking how another person is, only for them to respond with the obligatory, “Fine.“ Challenge yourself by getting to know one person on a deeper level every week. The UPS delivery person who has been delivering packages for years. What makes him tick? What is the meaning behind her tattoo? This will require a bit of courage, but chances are you will have made a deeper connection and the benefits will likely spill over into your clinical care.
Walk a mile in another man’s shoes
When I was in grade school, a plaque hung in the front office that said, “To understand a man, you must first walk a mile in his moccasin.“ On the reality show, Undercover Boss, this is precisely what the owners and upper-level management team do. They assume an alias, change their appearance, and perform entry-level tasks. The end result is one that usually involves a renewed appreciation and better compensation for entry-level workers.
Placing yourself in the shoes of your team members and patients will yield greater understanding and patience for those around you.
Hearing vs. listening
To truly understand others, you must reach beyond listening solely with the intent to reply. Authentic listening seeks to understand. However, to fully communicate, you must make yourself vulnerable. Empathy is a two-way, nonverbal dialog involving the exchange of authentic feelings.
Empathic leaders cultivate inclusive workplaces that make everyone feel valued and important. The outcome is increased workplace morale and productivity. Studies show when doctors treat patients from a place of empathy, they respond with greater confidence, are more likely to follow through with treatment protocols, report greater satisfaction in their clinician, and file fewer complaints and malpractice claims. The result is healthier patients with deeper, more fulfilling patient-clinician relationships.
A patient care, combined with empathy, generates practice success, stronger teams, and a more fulfilling career for the long haul. In a world of apathy, that hits differently.
Her clinical and support team experiences are the inspiration for her writing and the motivation for coaching clients to success. She is a regular contributor to various publications within dentistry and beyond. In addition to feeding the homeless, starting a non-profit, and being involved in her church and other community organizations, she sings professionally and enjoys several creative outlets. She resides in Florida where she enjoys the company of her husband, three children, and four beautiful grandchildren.