Developing an Empathy Quotient

old-books empathy quote

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Henry David Thoreau

This is the quote that begins a marketing video developed for the Cleveland Clinic. It’s a video they call “Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care.”

It is a well done short film that shows us many different patients in the health care system, superimposing their stories in script beside their images. At heart it’s about seeing beyond the surface, understanding the story behind the person.

When we know someone’s story, we are more likely to have compassion, to see them as human, subject to all the joys and tragedies that being human brings. Empathy is part of what makes us human. 

So how do we take this idea of seeing beyond the surface and begin to increase the collective empathy/emotional quotient or EQ in this country?

How can we teach kids to step into the shoes of others?  How do we develop an understanding – an emotional connection to their circumstances. How can we teach adults how to enter the story of another – without judgment, without expectation, just listening and learning about the experience of another?

A couple of weeks ago I posted a short video of a little girl in Iraq named Myriam. At the end of the video, the videographer thanks Myriam for her story, for her perspective. She responds by saying “And I thank you.” He asks her why, what has he done for her. “You have felt for me,” she says. “I had a lot of things to say and you let me say them.” These words from a child are remarkable. As young as she is, she recognizes the importance of story, of allowing people into our stories. She recognizes the importance of empathy and thanks the person who is interviewing her for his empathy.

In a short film about empathy versus sympathy Brene Brown talks about the research of nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman. Dr. Wiseman researched empathy in different occupations and came up with these four characteristics of empathy.

1. Perspective – the ability to take the perspective of another, recognizing it as their truth.

2. Staying out of judgment.

3. Recognizing emotion in other people.

4. Ability to communicate that emotion with people.

Brene Brown goes on to say that empathy is a choice and that it is a vulnerable choice. To be willing to be empathetic we have to be vulnerable and find in ourselves something that connects us to the pain, the circumstances of another. That is not easy.

Perhaps that’s why we saw such a dearth of empathy on the deaths of two black men in recent months – those of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Because no matter what you think or don’t think about the justice of each case, there is a place for deep empathy. Empathy with parents who have lost a child, with a woman who has lost a husband, with children who have lost their father. It seems many of us are unable to connect these tragedies with something inside ourselves, inside our souls.

Is it the same dearth of empathy that allows for rudeness and incivility in comments written at the end of online articles? The same lack of empathy that allows people to be unmoved when they see someone crying on the street? The same absence of empathy that has made bullying in and out of schools such a massive societal problem?

Or is it more complicated? Is it also because, as Leslie Jamison says, empathy is perched “precariously between gift and invasion?” Perhaps we struggle to voice empathy because we feel the person may not want us to ask questions, may not want us to connect at the heart level.

I think it’s partly about seeing people as less than as opposed to equal to. If we can see people as “less than” it is easy to dismiss them and dismiss their experience, dismiss their pain. If we acknowledge their humanity it becomes far harder to treat them poorly.

I don’t know what the answer is to developing an emotional quotient. I am a bleeding heart and can end up paralyzed by the pain of others and that’s not true empathy either. That’s being a trauma thief. But I think the process begins with watching, listening, and then being able to connect back to something in our own lives, remembering when we experienced something similar.

And then we ask. We ask them more about their story, more about their feelings, we learn the event behind the feeling. We think about how we might feel in the same situation. We let people tell their story, without judgment or fear of repercussions. Only then can we begin to see beyond our reactions into the heart of the person who hurts. Only then can we raise our emotional quotient and offer compassion and love.

What do you think? Do you think we have an empathy problem? What do you think would help? How do you teach your children empathy? 

I wish empathy was less ‘walk a mile in another’s shoes’ & more of ‘believe the experiences of those who walk in shoes different from yours.’


*quote from Twitter

Trauma Thieves


“I don’t like sharing my story with Americans. They cry and then I have to comfort them” from Rwandan refugee at refugee health conference 

Last week I attended one day of the three-day North American Refugee Health Conference in Rochester, New York. I scribbled my notes everywhere: on the back of the program, in a small note-book, and on the courtesy pad of paper given by the host hotel. There was so much to learn and I am a novice. And I heard stories, and more stories. Case studies of impossible situations and discussions with those who are far more advanced in this work.

But the statement above, heard at the conference, made me think about empathy. What is true empathy? I was primed ahead of time for this thought process – partly because of my work and partly because I read The Empathy Exams, an essay now turned into a book by Leslie Jamison. It resurrected more of what had already begun in my mind and heart.

One of the reasons I became a nurse was my strong sense of empathy for patients. Only was it empathy?

I always imagined that empathy is about hearing the trauma that happens to others, and imagining how I would feel, imagining what I would do, how on earth I would survive. And I think many of us do this. We hear a story from a refugee that enters our skin, our blood stream. We hear about the rape, or the hunger, or the food insecurity and we can’t stand it. It hurts too much. But is that being empathic or is it stealing their pain, pretending it’s ours?  Are we trauma thieves?

In the essay I cited above the author says this:” I used to believe that hurting would make you more alive to the hurting of others. I used to believe in feeling bad because somebody else did. Now I’m not so sure of either. I know that being in the hospital made me selfish. Getting surgeries made me think mainly about whether I’d have to get another one. When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.” She then gives the example of a family member and their bout with Bell’s Palsy, a condition of temporary paralysis resulting in one half of the face being unable to move. Physicians treat the disease with high doses of steroids. The author says that she obsessed with her brother’s condition, she would look in the mirror, imagining her face being unable to move, imagining the difficulty she would go through. She goes on to say that she was “stealing” her brother’s trauma and taking it on herself.

Maybe in a world where we have so much we feel we have to steal trauma. But does that help anybody? Does guilt over my lack of trauma help the person who is traumatized? I don’t think so. And I don’t think that refugees or other survivors of trauma want that. I think they want to tell their stories, they have to tell their stories to heal. But the listener needs to enter into this with permission and respecting boundaries. It is not the story teller’s job to comfort me, the listener. 

So when I listen to the stories of refugees and others who have gone through untold difficulty, when I read about tragedies a world away in places that I love, when I sit with patients who are struggling in body and soul, am I stealing their trauma and imagining what is not mine or am I entering into it humbly, as someone who doesn’t necessarily know what it feels like, but wants to walk the journey with the person any way?

I don’t know – but what I do know is that I am called to walk into hard places with people, and to walk with humility – ever learning, ever listening, ever-present. And I hope, I so hope that this is empathy.

“Empathy comes from the Greek Empatheia – em (into) and pathos (feeling) – a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border-crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” from The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

What do you think? What do you believe true empathy is? 

Picture credit:

Hospital Waiting Rooms

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” – Henry David Thoreau

Everyone should have to go into a hospital waiting room once a week and just sit – just sit and observe. I believe the results of such an experiment would be extraordinary.

Because it’s in the hospital waiting room where outward beauty is revealed for what it is and inward beauty shines.

It’s in the hospital waiting room where we are among those walking wounded. Those who bear their scars with nobility. It’s in hospital waiting rooms that you don’t try to hide tears; where you can’t hide anger or disappointment and where shock is just a part of the day’s story.

It’s in hospital waiting rooms where you realize that you share a lot more with fellow humans than you choose to admit. Where you realize that we’re all patients walking a hard path in a broken world.

Where tears fall with abandon but the cries of joy and thanksgiving mean more than we can imagine.

It all happens in a hospital waiting room.

And always there’s the waiting. The waiting for the doctor or therapist; waiting for your family member to pick you up; waiting to hear the results of the blood test. Always waiting and learning to wait more patiently, feeling your heart and stomach flutter with nervous dread.

So head over to a hospital waiting room and feel your heart change.

Blogger’s Note: Cleveland Clinic produced an extraordinary video called “Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care” Take a look at this short (4 1/2 minute) video and be encouraged. It felt like the perfect ending to this post.