I cannot quite pin point where my empathy journey began. In recent times, as I study, it has become evermore apparent that understanding others is an important part of being a successful nurse one day.
Looking back I feel that since a young age I have been inclined towards understanding others, having a naturally empathic demeanour. It’s probably led to my current career path. That said, I feel that empathy is a skill that can never be perfected. Being such a fleeting and challenging way of being, there will always be scope to improve my empathic ability.
Prior to undertaking empathy-specific training I saw empathy as putting yourself into another person’s shoes, taking on their emotions in an attempt to feel what they’re feeling, by halving their pain or doubling their joy. Now I can see empathy having many more practical, nuanced connotations. Firstly, connecting with patients to build a strong rapport, secondly, seeking to understand the motives and reasons behind patient behaviours in difficult situations, and to build an equal platform of trust to enable me to provide the best possible care.
Working within a surgical department at a paediatric hospital, my position has me interacting with parents who have received potentially distressing medical advice regarding the health of their child. Although I feel strongly compassionate for these people, I find it difficult to empathise. Instead of understanding from their perspective I often find my compassion being expressed with sympathy, whereby I instinctively imagine my family in their situation. It can be personally distressing, while getting in the way of acting for each individual's best interests.
Thinking about ways to broaden my understanding of the parent’s perspective I thought to connect with people confronted by the harrowing situation of having family members with a terminal illness. This idea came as I have a friend, Ben* who recently lost his father, and whom I really wanted to help in a positive way. Following encouragement from the first two empathy workshops, I thought it an ideal opportunity to connect with Ben at a deeper level, share and apply empathy to his situation. *Name changed for privacy
On my first meeting with Ben, we met at the local beach, an inspiring and calming location to discuss what are likely to be difficult experiences. With an intention to connect and share, it wasn’t long until we discussed his experience of his father's terminal illness. In fact, we had discussed it in the past. However, as I was consciously trying to empathise, the conversation went beyond the surface as Ben shared more of his experiences. On reflection I could see that being an active listener, being mindful not to make assumptions and jump to conclusions, and sharing myself (without justifying his perspective via my own) were all crucial components of our meaningful interaction.
Once I returned home I began reflecting upon the conversation we had, especially the fundamental differences between us that form barriers to mutual perspective taking. There are two main empathy gaps, firstly, as I am fortunate to have both parents alive and healthy, I’ve never had to confront this form of loss. Secondly, being female I have limited comprehension of the depth of a close father/son relationship. Thanks to our deep, authentic conversations I sensed from Ben that it is unique, heightening and enduring the loss. It is possible that this relationship is quite different to the father/daughter and mother/daughter relationship I share with my parents. Although these are barriers, being aware of these differences as sources of perceptual bias is a crucial step in bridging the gaps.
I met with Ben a few times, each time I found us both opening up more in general. Also, interestingly, I found myself sharing more of my private views and beliefs. In doing this I felt we created a strong bond and deep trust which enabled Ben to share an increasingly authentic view of his personal emotional trauma.
Buoyed by these experiences I began to consider how I could appropriately immerse myself to further deepen my understanding. It is difficult for sure, but I felt it crucial to observe and feel some of the emotions my patients and their family’s experience.
Discussing some ideas with work colleagues, we found an approach that is ethical, legal and appropriate given the delicate perspectives I am trying to understand. My colleagues supported and encouraged me, giving me extra confidence to take this final step!
Some days later I spent time sitting in the surgical waiting room with the parents of the children in theatre. As you might imagine, it is a sparse room with simple furniture, but cluttered many unsaid thoughts and swirling with invisible yet intense emotions. While in the room I didn’t speak with anyone, instead observing to gain new understanding. By applying an ethnographic approach I was able to learn a lot through observation. Body language and affective emotional energy suggested heightened anxieties and fear, mixed with a visible determination to remain strong. The period of uncertainty during surgery was clearly very challenging for everyone present.
During the study I observed surgeons entering the room and providing the results of surgery to the family members present. While it was a challenging experience personally, there is no doubt it broadened my understanding of the emotions parents might experience. Thanks to this I feel far more in tune with the healthcare experience of parents, instead of keeping an emotional distance I now believe it possible to engage more deeply without getting caught in my own personal distress.
Following these experiences, as a nursing student (and future registered nurse) I believe empathy is a skill very underrated within the industry. Understanding another’s perspective can shape the way we respond to those in need, in a positive way. Furthermore, I see empathy as a journey, rather than a one-time exercise including conversations, observations and immersing yourself in a new situation. It is hinged on not only listening to and seeking to understand the other person, but equally, it requires looking into and understanding yourself.
Maree Ward is currently studying Bachelor of Nursing