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The value of empathy

Actively listening and focusing on feelings are keys to building stronger client relationships and reducing the risk of compassion fatigue in yourself.

The value of empathy
Communicating empathy doesn’t mean taking on a client’s emotions or becoming involved in unhealthy helping.

Much has been written about how caring the veterinary profession is and how the extent of our caring can lead to high levels of stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. People, companies and organizations that focus on ways to improve personal well-being are producing studies and surveys and leading seminars and discussions aimed at creating healthier work environments.

But what about the need to address one of the underlying causes of compassion fatigue: interactions with emotional pet owners? What veterinarian or team member hasn’t gone home drained after having a difficult conversation with an emotional client or hearing “no” to treatment recommendations?

Avoiding these situations isn’t the answer. Instead, veterinary teams need to learn to better communicate with clients so that these interactions are less stressful. The answer isn’t that veterinary professionals need to “care more.” Rather, they should hone specific communication skills that build stronger relationships with pet owners and reduce the risk of compassion fatigue.

The communication skill we’ll examine in this article is that of conveying empathy.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is generally defined as the ability to sense another person’s emotions and imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Sympathy, on the other hand, is feeling bad for someone or identifying with that person’s feelings. Check out the YouTube video “Brené Brown on Empathy” at http://bit.ly/2NnSCPu. It offers an excellent explanation of the differences.

Expressing sympathy appears to come more naturally to most people. Expressing empathy, on the other hand, might be more difficult because it involves being vulnerable and reaching a deeper connection with someone. Practicing empathy requires being mindful and patient.

Why It Matters

Using the communication skill of expressing empathy is so important for these major reasons:

  • Conveying empathy builds trust and rapport with people, leading to greater client loyalty. When people feel heard, they are more likely to form strong bonds with the hospital team.
  • Empathy can lead to greater client compliance and better medical outcomes. This happens because when people’s needs are met, they are in a better place to work with the health care team and get their pet’s needs met.

How to Do It

One of the most critical aspects of conveying empathy is to recognize that it is a two-part process. The first is to understand and appreciate another person’s predicament or feelings. The second is to then supportively communicate your understanding to someone. Let’s look at how to convey empathy during each part of the process.

To appreciate someone’s feelings, you must be fully present. This means being attentive. Being empathetic doesn’t mean you have to feel as the person feels or that you have to have experienced their feelings. What’s important is to strive to understand what the pet owner is feeling. So often in veterinary medicine, we jump to trying to fix the problem without spending enough time on the first part: expressing empathy.

To better understand how pet owners feel, teams need to practice active listening. Think of empathy as a communication skill where “less is more,” meaning that less talking and more listening is the key to success. Additionally, be mindful of clients’ nonverbal communication, which can give clues to how they’re feeling. Crying, looking down, clinging to pets, a furrowed brow and a closed-off body posture all indicate a pet owner who is uncomfortable or concerned.

Likewise, pay attention to the messages sent by your nonverbal communication. Making eye contact when conveying empathy is important because it demonstrates your interest in the other person. Facial expressions and body language should always match empathetic statements. For example, a caring look, leaning in and an open body posture are all empathetic nonverbal communications.

When the time comes to verbally express empathy, try to pause after saying one or two sentences. Think of empathy statements as a paper airplane that takes time to flutter through the air and land. The purpose of the pause is to make sure the client feels heard, and it often leads to people telling you more about how they feel or what they’re thinking regarding their pet’s care or treatment options.

What to Say

Sometimes, team members tell clients about personal experiences or their knowledge of the pet’s condition. Care should be taken when expressing shared feelings because they can draw attention away from the client, who might feel that the situation is unique. For example, my cousin has a dog that was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, so I shared with her that I used to have a dog with CHF who was on eight medications. I didn’t go into any detail so that the focus stayed on how her little dog was doing.

Bear in mind that people tend to express sympathy rather than empathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone and often involves sharing the person’s feelings. Here are examples:

  • “I’m so sorry you lost your job. I’m sure you’ll bounce back.”
  • “That is awful. The same thing happened to me.”

By contrast, empathy statements don’t express pity, are more personal and convey a deeper level of understanding. Here are examples:

  • “I can see by your expression that this is very upsetting.”
  • “Oh, I can imagine that must have been so frustrating.”
  • “It sounds like you did everything you could for Chloe.”
  • “It sounds like you’re feeling discouraged because you don’t know which course of action to take.”

One of the ways to practice conveying empathy is to think about focusing on feelings:

  • “I’m glad you told me what you’re feeling.”
  • “How are you doing?”
  • “Are you feeling scared because Molly has to go under anesthesia?”
  • “Are you wanting me to tell you what I would do in this situation?”
  • “I can sense it has been difficult to manage Jake’s condition at home.”

Avoiding Compassion Fatigue

Remember that empathy is about understanding someone’s emotions or relating to their experience. Teams that focus on understanding the client’s perspective can help build client loyalty and improve medical outcomes. But communicating empathy doesn’t mean taking on a client’s emotions or becoming involved in unhealthy helping. Expressing empathy doesn’t mean abandoning a focus on well-being or having to solve all of the client’s problems. The key to minimizing the risk of compassion fatigue is to maintain an appropriate emotional distance while being sensitive to the pet owner’s feelings.

Here are some last bits of advice to support the team in this effort.

  • Expressing empathy doesn’t come naturally to everyone but is a skill that can be learned. To assist with team training, brainstorm client scenarios and appropriate empathetic responses so that employees know what to do and say to build trust and rapport with pet owners.
  • Stress and compassion fatigue can lead to a lack of empathy toward clients because team members just don’t have anything left to give. So, practice the skill of empathy with each other. If someone is having a rough day, express empathy.
  • Hold weekly standing meetings to share feelings about difficult client communications or situations. Don’t try to solve problems or fix anything. Just listen to each other and express empathy. Having an outlet for feelings hopefully will help team members leave stress at the practice rather than take it home.

Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She is the author of “101 Practice Management Questions Answered” and serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.