I have been in the OT profession for more than 30 years and have known many, many outstanding therapists. As I pondered the different work styles and skills of this group of providers, I realized one quality they all had in common was a strong sense of empathy. When I watched these therapists with a patient, I could see they had forged a strong personal connection, and that they had intuitively identified with their patient’s feelings, thoughts, and attitudes.
For many therapists, empathy comes naturally. Their ability to connect with others is one reason they selected a profession that provides care and assistance. But can you work at improving empathy? Can paying attention to a few behaviors help empathy shine through, even on those days that you are tired, distracted or just plain burned out.
I have found five techniques that are easy to implement, and challenge you to try all of them. Next week, commit to one new technique each day to increase your attention to and focus on empathy. I would love to hear from you if find this exercise impacts your practice or your patients in a positive way!
- Be curious – always ask questions. Don’t be satisfied with just understanding the event or condition that brought them to you today, but try to understand your patient’s “back story” What has their life journey been like and how it is connected to your life journey? Challenge yourself to find a connection with each of your patients.
- Listen – intently. Leave preconceived notions behind, lean in, make eye contact and listen. What is your patient’s most important goal today? What are they most proud of in their health journey? What is their biggest challenge? What are they most worried about?
- Walk in your patient’s shoes. As you prepare for your day, think about the way your life would change if you faced the challenges faced by your patients. What would your life be like if you suffered a stroke or traumatic brain injury? How would your life change if one of your children were diagnosed on the spectrum? What would you do if one of your parents had Alzheimer’s?
- Be present. We are all busy and sometimes rush through the day from one patient to the next. Instead try to slow down and before you join your patient, pause, take a breath, center yourself and make the mental transition to their needs. Put devices away, push paperwork aside and enter the room with your full attention on your patient.
- Be alert to body language. We all know body language basics – crossed arms and limited eye contact do not signal engagement for you or your patient. But also learn the more subtle signs and be alert to signs of disengagement, fatigue, boredom or impatience as your appointment progresses.
Cheryl Hall, OT
Author and Illustrator Physical Therapy Toolkit