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We don’t talk enough about…empathy

Marianne Monie tells us why we need to talk more about empathy and its significance to the care we provide. If we work in health and care then our work is all about people, and the one-by-one interactions between one human and another.

From the moment we are born, humans seek out connection with other people. Only a few minutes after birth, babies prefer human faces to anything else, and within days we can tell the difference between happy, sad and surprised faces. This is the first step in developing our ability to share someone else’s experiences or feelings through empathy.

Why does empathy matter?

Being able to understand another person’s perspective makes us more likely to care about that person, and communicating to them our genuine understanding of their views is one of several crucial elements of providing compassionate care. Given the consistent positive associations between patient experience, patient safety and clinical effectiveness, this is something that should interest everyone working in health and care.

Whether we are talking to a client, patient or colleague, entering into their frame of reference helps us to accurately understand that individual’s experience. This is crucial if we want to improve the services we provide and the places we work. Gill Phillips has brought this approach to life through her Whose Shoes?® tools that support and challenge teams to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

Whether we are talking to a client, patient or colleague, entering into their frame of reference helps us to accurately understand that individual’s experience.

But the importance of empathy to society goes much further. If we care about other people, we are also less likely to hurt them. So increasing empathy not only plays a role in enhancing community connectedness and wellbeing, but also in reducing violence and conflict.

Mary Gordon goes as far as saying empathy is central to a successful democracy. The Roots of Empathy programme she established has been running in schools for more than 20 years and successfully reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren.

When we take an empathetic approach to those around us, we misunderstand each other less and it is easier to make changes. In her work on kindness Julia Unwin has highlighted the importance of empathy in achieving behaviour change such as increased exercise levels. If we want to improve the health and wellbeing of society, how many untapped possibilities might we be missing?

Is there a downside?

But what about the costs of opening ourselves up in this way? To empathise, we have to allow ourselves to imagine the often uncomfortable emotions and experiences of others. This can be draining. Repeatedly sharing in pain, distress or anger may leave those who are the most empathetic at higher risk of compassion fatigue.

There is a lot of talk in the NHS about the need for resilience, but this doesn’t necessarily mean learning to suppress uncomfortable emotions. In some professions, such as counselling, there are mechanisms, including formal supervision, to support staff in emotional support as well as professional development. Many NHS trusts have adopted Schwartz Rounds – a forum that gives staff from all disciplines the opportunity to reflect on the emotional aspects of their work. These are just two examples of ways to reduce the feelings of stress and isolation which make it more difficult to provide compassionate care to patients.

If we work in health and care then our work is all about people, and the one-by-one interactions between one human and another. How might we build more empathy into all those interactions, and what might we discover if we did?


Marianne Monie is leading the integration of health and care for local people in Cambridgeshire. She has more than 18 years’ experience spanning national health policy, the third sector, and NHS management. She writes this blog in a personal capacity.

This topic will be discussed at our Super Melting Pot on 16-17 January, where we will be exploring the things that we don’t talk nearly enough about.


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Marianne Monie9 January 2020

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