Empathy Update










So some people believe that everything happens for a reason. And others believe in serendipity*.
Either way I had to chuckle today at home cell. The topic for the evening was ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood. I turned over the page and the first task was to: ‘Take a few minutes to discuss the difference between empathy and sympathy‘. Divine intervention or coincidence – you decide!

Whether emapthetic or sympathetic, both require us to at least hear the other person’s story first by listening. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get myself into trouble by assuming things. Assuming what someone’s going to say, how they’re feeling, what they’re expecting, etc. Assuming things means we’re not effectively listening. When we are truly interested in what someone is saying, 3 important things happen:
– We give them a sense of self-worth
– Trust is built up
– We can decide what to do on the basis of knowledge rather than assumption or ignorance
Important, no?

If it’s so important, why do we find it so difficult to listen with empathy?
Pick one or all that apply…
– Desire to be appreciated for offering a wise solution
– Insufficient time to give or impatience
– Need to defend your position
– Feeling of superiority
– Distractions like noise, movement or thoughts
– Assuming you know what the person’s going to say
– Been there, done that – let me tell you about me
– Thinking of your reply
We can all probably pick at least one that we could work on if we’re honest.

*Serendipity = The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

Magic Kisses or Rational Hugs?

I loved reading this article:

The morality of magic kisses: Ethics and placebo in physiotherapy


Neil O’Connell wonderfully discusses the ethical implications of using placebo in treating patients.  He talks about using:

“magic kisses” (a placebo he  gives out freely to his daughter; or in physio speak: passive modalities such as acupuncture/dry needling, mobilisation/manipulation, electrotherapy etc.)


“rational hugs” (therapeutic approaches like advice, pain education, Cognitive-Based Therapy, lifestyle adaptation, which push patients to re-evaluate their symptoms and alter their behavioural responses).

On the one hand, we are committed to reducing suffering and placebo can sometimes fulfill that.  However, we need to be transparent and the patient has the right to informed consent. Part of the placebo process requires some sort of deception that undermines the patient-physio relationship.

Since the clinical effects of placebo are generally small, is it worth it to undermine trust in the therapeutic relationship?  How many things do we offer our patients that could be classified as ‘placebo’?  And, how many “rational hugs” having you been giving out lately?

It’s Not About The Nail

“Don’t try to fix it. I just need you to listen.”

This video is actually about the differences between men and women.

But, I think it’s a classic example of what we as physiotherapists sometimes do to our patients – or let’s face it – to people in general.  We’re more focused on ‘fixing’ the problem, instead of trying to move past the surface view of the problem, LISTENING and then moving forward with the person.  Sometimes things make so much sense to us and the solution so obvious that we feel the need to make the person ‘see’ it.  But that’s not what they always need…

Yes it’s a bit random, but it illustrates the point beautifully.


So, how well do you listen?

Week 1: Empathy

My objectives for the course; the difference between Empathy and Sympathy; and why Empathy is relevant to us – as humans, and as health professionals.

Let’s start with my course objectives.  Here we go…

  • To explore my own personal and professional  ethics, with the other course participants, so that I can better understand and practice what it means to be ethical.
  • To broaden my own thoughts and feelings by interacting with the participants – their blog posts, comments and ideas; and by listening/reading/watching various sources of information regarding ethics.
  • To post weekly about the topic for that week, reading other’s posts and engaging in open-minded discussions.
  • To continuously re-evaluate my personal viewpoints during the course.

This is definitely the right time to do the course since we use ethics everyday in our interactions with others.  It is relevant.  It is current.  I’ll know I’ve accomplished these objectives by completing the course, getting my Professional Ethics badge and completion certificate, and by (hopefully) growing in the process.  How cool is it that the course content comes from our blog posts and links?  I’m thinking super-cool.

Empathy – The ability of blurring the line between self and other.














So, Empathy vs Sympathy.

People are often confused by which is which.  Here’s a short and sweet (but very good) video explaining the difference…


Sympathy = comforting, safe and warm BUT you risk smothering the person you are sympathizing with.  It can frustrate or annoy rather than empower the person.

Empathy = still warm, comforting and safe BUT there’s enough space for the person to feel comfortable and open up.  It can empower them to be brave and step out of their situation.  Or at least change the way they feel about it.

Do yourself a favour and watch some of the other videos in Ed Stockham’s series on Empathy.  They’re whimsical but still contain some really deep truths.  Plus, I dare you not to smile when you watch them!

Empathy, why is it relevant to us?

While watching a great presentation about Empathy on physioellen‘s blog; I wanted to smack my fist on my desk and shout: “Hurrah!” in agreement with Jeremy Rifkin (not the coolest thing to shout but something to that effect).  It just made so much sense.  Being empathic is the way we’re wired.  Funny that all of us are on this journey course to learn what empathy is.  Shouldn’t it come naturally?  What’s going on in this world that something which should be a natural ability is so foreign to most people?  And perhaps more importantly, how can we revive our empathetic selves?

After reading an excellent article on Connecting with Patients, I realized anew that being human and being a health professional are one and the same.  We like to pack our Physio selves into one little box and our true selves into another.  It’s easier that way – or so we think.  What we fail to realize is that we could be MORE effective by merging our little boxes into one box and using it to interact with EVERYONE, patient or no patient.  The excuses for not doing this are many – “I don’t have time!” “It’s too draining!” “I only invest in my friends/family, patients are just there to pay the bills.” ” I wouldn’t know where to start!”

The author, Colette Herrick, cites recent research to address the time factor: Empathic expression does not actually take more time if it is accomplished effectively.  The key for me is “if it is accomplished effectively”.  Now that’s something I need to learn. Who wouldn’t want to save time while being empathetic?  My opinion differs from Colette a bit though.  She sees emotional intelligence and empathy as skills that one can learn.  I believe that it is more a way of being, of doing. When we get taught at varsity, we learn things that we never knew before. We acquire knowledge.  But when we discuss things like empathy, or practice it, I think we are just reminding ourselves about what we already know.  It’s there, inside us.

But how much is too much?

Some think that empathy and professional distance are on opposite ends of the spectrum.  I believe they go hand in hand.  The hard part is to constantly make sure that we are exercising both.  While Googling “Empathy” and “Professional Distance” I came across this helpful albeit hippy site.  After a bit of relaxation and imagery cues, they get down to some useful statements.  These statements are good to keep in mind when trying to figure out how professional distance and empathy fit together.  Here are some:

  • You show respect for others by not taking on their problems.
  • Empathy is to show compassion for the struggles others might be going through.
  • Your role is to offer support but not to fix.
  • You can offer tools and support to give people the opportunity to fix their own problems.
  • You are not being helpful if you are offering solutions. (That’s a tough one!  We think we’re so good at it.)
  • You can help others identify their strengths, and encourage them to use their strengths to problem solve.
  • You can show real compassion by understanding while remaining neutral.
  • You are the most effective in your professional role when you are neutral and you take care of yourself.
  • It is okay to stop thinking about clients when you leave work; in fact, it is essential.  (Hmm, need to work on this)
  • You do not have to feel a client’s emotions to empathize.
  • You can be neutral and still understand and offer support.

How many of those hit home?