The imperative for building your appetite for empathy

09 Jul 2013

“If you could stand in someone else’s shoes, hear what they hear, see what they see, feel what they feel, would you treat them differently?” These are the words spoken by Tony Cosgrove, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic at the end of the video he aired for the first time at his annual State of the Clinic address.

The rest is history as they say. The video titled: Empathy: The human connection to patient care went viral.

What Tony Cosgrove connected with is people’s appetite for empathy. It is a groundswell that is gaining powerful momentum. The shift from clinician centred to patient centred healthcare is an important point of understanding for the health workforce. The quality of the patient experience is no longer defined by the best technical expertise alone. What will be remembered and judged is the connection clinicians make at a human level – the surgeon with his hand on the distressed parent’s shoulder who says “I’m so sorry you are going through such a difficult time right now” will be making a human connection far more powerful than if he / she were to talk instead about technical knowledge at that moment. The emotional bond that empathy creates is lasting and helps build resilience. It allows the person to feel valued and to endure the most difficult of times.

Empathy goes far beyond the clinician – patient relationship. The value of emotional intelligence in assessing leadership suitability for roles has long been recognised. In particular, post GFC, since every industry, sector and jurisdiction has been operating in an environment of uncertainty and economic challenge. Downsizing, cost cutting and rapid  transformational change are elements of the new world that leadership must manage in. Uncertainty and change create stress and fear. To be effective, leadership must be able to connect with the human element – connecting with their own feelings and the feelings of others in their workforce. “Standing in someone else’s shoes” to better understand what they need.

For some, the stress of change can be the fear of losing their job, or not being valued or fear of the unknown. There are several ways that emotional intelligence can support people through change:

  1. Listening to what it is that the person fears or is stressed about. Each of us is different and will have a different need.
  2. Empathy in reaching out to make a human connection will help people build their resilience and feel valued.
  3. Mindfulness in leadership is the focus of an article in July HGIinSIGHT by guest writer, Judith Lissing, CEO and Principal of Your Mind Coach. The present is a very effective way of grounding people who are experiencing fear and stress.
  4. Authenticity builds trust and respect. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Introverts will engage in internal dialogue.  Extroverts will need to talk and externalise thoughts. Both personality types however, will need language to connect with their feelings. Dialogue helps people to better understand emotions and it helps build effective teams who may otherwise turn on each other through anger, stress, fear and mistrust.