Canadian Medical Association

What is empathetic communication?

Effective, empathetic communication is one of the most important skills to have as a physician — and is key to creating a better medical culture. But empathy can erode over time as you struggle to balance distance and connection in your relationships with patients. As a result, you may start to devote more time and energy to medical explanations and less to building trust with your patients.

Empathetic communication is when you listen actively and positively without judging or trying to influence what the other person is thinking.

In other words, empathy involves understanding someone’s experiences without necessarily agreeing with their ideas or fixing their problem. It is different from sympathy, where you experience another person’s emotions, which can lead to emotional fatigue and a lack of objectivity.

When you communicate empathetically, you not only recognize the emotion of the person you’re speaking with but you welcome it and allow it to develop to improve that person’s wellbeing.

Why empathy matters in medicine

From a patient’s perspective, your ability to understand how they feel builds trust and a sense of safety.

Empathy matters because:

  • It’s good for patients. When patients feel like they’re being heard and understood, it improves satisfaction, adherence to treatment and health outcomes.
  • It’s good for physicians. Studies show that practising empathy in patient care helps physicians find more meaning in their work, reduces burnout and improves wellbeing.
  • It’s good for institutions. Empathy strengthens relationships between colleagues, fosters collaboration and improves clinical competence.

Empathy should be actively promoted, supported and cultivated in the medical profession.

4 steps to foster empathetic communication

Because empathetic communication is based on emotions, it can evolve as a conversation proceeds. This blog post from Boldly, presents some steps for effective empathetic communication:

  1. Perceive and identify emotions: Gauge how the person you’re speaking to is feeling in the moment, then identify and classify those emotions (e.g., fear, anger, disappointment). 
  2. Investigate and understand: Try to understand the other person’s reasons for feeling the way they do. Ask open-ended questions and let them explain and discover their own motivations. Make sure you do this step without judgment, as your position can influence the conversation. Be mindful of your language and don’t deny or avoid the other person’s perspective.
  3. Help them work on evolving their emotions: For example, you might help a person who is angry work toward becoming calmer and support them in looking for creative solutions to their problems. To do this, ask them what has worked in the past or offer strategies that have helped you when you’ve been in a similar situation.
  4. Watch your non-verbal cues: make eye contact, nod your head and lean in to convey your presence and interest.

Putting it into practice

Here are three examples of what you might say to a patient to demonstrate empathy:

If your patient is struggling with chronic pain:

“Chronic pain is a terrible thing to live with. I would be frustrated, too. I can’t take it away, but I’m going to look after you.”

If your patient is afraid of needles:

“I know you hate needles. If I could do anything to make this not hurt, I would. I’m going to put some alcohol on your skin and ask you to count to 10 out loud, and I’ll make this as fast as possible.”

If you’re in a rush:

“If you have another brief question, I can answer it now. If you’d like more time to go over things, let’s schedule another appointment.”

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