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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Empathy: A Critical Communication Skill

04/13/16 09:55 AM | Gloria Dickerson | Health Care, Trauma


Empathy is a critical communication skill for all people and is especially important for health care providers. Some individuals lack the capacity to understand how their actions make others feel. Adults with cognitive difficulties, histories of repeated trauma, and even so-called “normal” people can have difficulty connecting and understanding other people’s experiences. These people lack empathy.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner....”

Individuals who lack the ability to empathize with others have a significant communication problem that affects their quality of life and those around them. They are closed off from receiving, experiencing, and giving love and kindness.

Some people who lack empathy have never experienced empathy from others as they were growing up and—not surprisingly—are unable to trust and empathize with others. Repeated trauma and neglect often leave people cut off; many insulate themselves into a protective cocoon. It is not that these people are intentionally refusing to understand the experience of others; they lack this skill.

When a healthcare provider lacks empathy, it is particularly problematic. Patients can become the object of disdain at a time when they require caring and warm engagement. It is my hope that in a trauma-informed, recovery-oriented system of care, all encounters and communications spring from a deep understanding of others. This requires that some providers learn better communication skills, especially empathy. Even more important, providers need to model empathy, kindness, and understanding as a critical tool for communicating and providing high quality care. (Read more about Gloria's personal experiences which demonstrate the importance of empathy in health care).

Some providers only focus on the immediate “behavior” of a client, ignoring the determinants of this behavior. The process of observing and interpreting the behavior of a client without checking in about his or her internal experiences may lead providers to unfounded conclusions. This can lead to negative judgments based on erroneous assumptions that inappropriately label clients.

Attempts to understand another by observing and interpreting behavior only through one’s personal lens interfere with the ability to understand the experience of another. The focus on behavior and the inability to empathize leads to unintended consequences. Lack of empathy—whether from a provider or client—leaves both parties in a similar predicament. They end up reacting to others as objects without understanding the totality of their experience and possible motivations for their actions.

My hope is that part of transforming medical care and providing recovery oriented, trauma-informed care will mean that providers and peers who are providers will model and promote empathy and understand its implications for recovery. If we begin to approach each other by trying to walk in another person’s shoes, we will better understand and empathize, a process that will facilitate mutual respect and healthier outcomes.

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Image by Paul Kalupnieks (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Gloria Dickerson

Written by Gloria Dickerson

Gloria Dickerson is a Recovery Specialist at the Center for Social Innovation. Her expertise in recovery derives from academic training and lived experience of recovery from trauma, mental illness, and homelessness. Gloria received a B.S. from Tufts University and has completed master’s level studies in Instructional Design and Psychiatric Rehabilitation.