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the power of Empathy


John Nicholson, Senior Chaplain, CPFT, May 2015


“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.”


Mohsin Hamid



I was always happiest in my grandparents’ home, in their company. Known, loved, safe, and accepted by them, I was never asked or pressed to explain anything unless I chose to, and their approach towards me was always conversational. It was simply a matter of gentle chatter and a cup of tea. The world outside could be safely left at the door. Theirs was a place of refuge and calm, and it just kind of worked.


At my grandmother’s funeral I shared a story about two gods disguising themselves as ordinary peasants and visiting a town to ask for a place to sleep that night. Everyone rejected them except a poor couple who lived behind the last door they’d knocked on. Although they had little to offer, they took the strangers in. Revealing themselves to be gods next morning, the visitors offered a reward for the kindness they had received.


This urge to care - this urge to be a bridge for the visitor or guest - between one moment and the next in their lives, in their time of need, in their distress - this urge lies deep within us. At its purest, we call it empathy. And because empathy is a sacred, human function which can save lives and redeem situations that may at first seem lost or hopeless, we must safeguard its wellbeing. But how do we do that?


It may seem obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: keeping empathy alive and thriving in a healthcare culture such as ours depends upon your internal environment and mine. What’s going on in your head and heart? Are you being mindful of that? Of course, reflective practice will help, but being mindful of what you are doing when and as you are doing it will be a more powerful and effective way of enhancing a relationship with someone in your care. And this business of being mindful in our transactions with others links to what is perhaps the most important and essential aspect of an approach that is human and empathic: that is, the power of imaginative thought. Or, as the cliché puts it, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.


Someone kindly reminded me of this recently, and I needed to hear it. My care for her had fallen short because my imagination had switched off much too soon. But with her help we found a way for me to be more open, honest, and emotionally available to her whilst maintaining a professional boundary. The words she said to a colleague and me as we sat with her in her living room – the words that really brought home to me the mistake I had made in my care of her some months beforehand – were very simple: she said “I have always put myself in the other person’s shoes.”  Note, she didn’t say I always try to put myself in the other’s shoes. No, not try. She makes a leap of the imagination and puts herself in their place. She goes down into the black hole with the person in the black hole, if you will, if only for an hour at a time.