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Empathy in Times of Crisis

Posted By Helen Riess, M.D., Tuesday, March 17, 2020

We are facing a critical time of fear and uncertainty with the invasion of the novel Corona virus on the world stage, when healthcare organizations are scrambling to keep patients and workers safe, informed and calm. When fear takes hold, we can expect reactions to follow along a continuum from frank denial to full scale panic. Both of these extreme responses are not only unhelpful, but dangerous.

 

When people raid grocery stores or hospital shelves and stock up on more hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes or face masks than they could possibly need, they leave others vulnerable to infection and with even greater fear and loss of control. In a time of crisis, we need to worry about other people as much or even more than ourselves.

Many regard empathy as merely a soft emotion of feeling sorry for others. Empathy is a powerful tool in times of crisis (see more at TEDx The Power of Empathy.) Our hard-wired capacity for empathy involves both cognitive and emotional centers of the brain, and when effectively harnessed together, can help leaders provide truthful, caring, and helpful information while at the same time remain calm, steady, and decisive. Empathy is a crucial part of emotional intelligence that leaders need to employ in times of crisis.

 

How does empathy relate to emotional intelligence (EI)? EI is the ability to practice: (1) self-awareness (2) other awareness, (3) self-management, and (4) relationship management. Being alert to these practices and actually putting them into action through empathy can greatly impact overall health and well-being – of ourselves as well as others – during a healthcare crisis.

 

Self-Awareness

 

Self-awareness means recognizing your own emotions. Before springing into action, you must first assess your own mental states so you can manage them. Many empathetic people are better at perceiving the emotional needs of others than their own. Just as oncologists must steady themselves before delivering bad news so they don’t inflict their own stress onto their patients, you must recognize your own emotions. Self-awareness also involves understanding your own vulnerabilities and remembering what you need to do to remain calm and safe. In our current crisis, this means you must take into account how your decision-making may be influenced by your emotional state, and then adjust your choices accordingly.

 

Other-Awareness and Empathy

 

Every human being has a longing to be seen and understood, and this longing becomes much more acute in times of crisis. “I see you” is the meaning of the Zulu word for hello, “Sawubona”. It is also what opens the gate for other-awareness and empathy. It takes intention and openness to take in the emotional and physical expressions of others. Instead of looking at a waiting room as a sea of humanity, it’s important to see each person as an individual. Just a kind look in the eye or using the person’s name more than once in a conversation will help people know they matter.

 

Other-awareness involves not only appreciating the feelings of others but also understanding their perspectives and life circumstances. This capacity allows us to move beyond the chief complaints people have to valuing their chief concerns. Patients or co-workers who seem to be over-reacting to the current health crisis likely have some legitimate reasons for their fears. Genuine interest and careful listening will be necessary during this healthcare challenge to prevent dismissing concerns or labeling others. Showing empathy in this way will help calm fears and enable others to make rational choices for the care of themselves and others.

 

Self-Management and Self-Empathy

 

Implementing the tools that work best to calm your own fears requires knowing yourself and understanding your need for self-empathy. Contrary to popular belief, self-empathy is different from selfishness. It’s very hard to take good care of others if you neglect yourself. Self-empathy does not mean “I care more about myself more than you” but rather, “I need to take care of myself so I’m able to take care of you.” Every healthcare provider and staff member needs their own unique tool kit for self-management and know when to use it. And when we are asked to use social distancing and self-quarantine to avoid virus exposure, we do this to help both ourselves and others.

 

Relationship Management

 

The secret to effective relationship management is empathic listening and seeking to understand others’ feelings, thoughts and circumstances. It is essential to finding common ground. In a crisis, we need to relay facts with empathy and clarity. False assurances are worthless and cause greater alarm when truth is revealed. In other words, spreading false hope is destructive. True empathy requires the ability to tune into the fears and concerns of others and provide the best recommendations, even if they are not what people want to hear. It is walking the fine line of perceiving and taking care of immediate emotions while not losing sight of what is the best medical care in the long term. No one wants to hear that his/her normal routines and practices are now curtailed, but when focused on the long-term health of our society, the short-term restrictions make sense.

 

The Power of Empathy: A Call to Action

 

At this time of international emergency, there’s an urgent need for global empathy. The current situation calls for us to empower ourselves and others to collectively come together, bringing our best selves to the forefront to overcome this global health crisis. Far from the notion of survival of the fittest, where the strongest individuals only take care of themselves, we need altruism, cooperation, and collaboration to save our society as a whole. It is time to think about our patients as individuals, as well as our neighbors, co-workers, friends and family, and do what we can to support one another and to ask for help when we need it ourselves.

 

Helping each other is what brings us together and enlivens our spirit and our communities, and it is needed now more than ever, locally, regionally, nationally, and globally.

 

Dr. Riess is a psychiatrist and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She directs the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has devoted her career to the art and science of healing relationships. Her research has been published in leading medical journals and has won many awards. Dr Riess's TEDx talk "The power of Empathy TEDX" has been viewed by more than 500,000 viewers. Her new book, The Empathy Effect has been licensed in nine foreign countries. In 2012, Dr. Riess co-founded Empathetics.com an organization that provides evidence-based empathy and communication skills training for healthcare and education. Dr. Riess and her teams are dedicated to transforming healthcare systems into compassionate care systems. 

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