Can Empathy Be Learned?

IMG_7350Why should we concern ourselves with empathy? Empathy is often thought of as the ability to imagine how another person feels, to walk in their shoes, to see life through their eyes. But it is also an important behavioral trait that helps guide how we act, how we respond to others around us. For example, staff and families who are empathetic in dealing with persons with dementia are more able to practice person-centered care, be patient and find constructive solutions.1 Recent research shows that empathetic physicians are more successful in helping patients adhere to treatments, more likely to be perceived as trustworthy, report high levels of professional satisfaction, get more meaning from their work and experience less burnout.2 Burnout drives up health care costs by contributing to staff sick time and turnover.

There is evidence however, that a type of empathy referred to as “affective empathy” by Zenasni (2012), can lead to ‘compassion fatigue’, exhaustion and burnout. Nielsen and Tulinius (2009) describe compassion fatigue is ‘being exhausted emotionally’ due to frequent difficult patient encounters, associated with the need for great attention and empathic listening. Burnout is defined in part by a depersonalisation attitude which favours dehumanisation in social interactions, and a decrease of overall empathy. This attitude can be a reaction when one becomes traumatised by or preoccupied with, the suffering of those being helped.

Conversely, empathy referred to as “cognitive empathy”, involves awareness, practice and self-reflection.2 It calls for an understanding of the importance of separating the problems of those being helped, from the self. It means practicing emotional attunement without being preoccupied with an individual’s suffering. As doctors who are empathetic find more meaning in their work and experience less burnout, it stands to reason that developing empathetic habits in the health care workforce, will result in similar benefits.

But can empathy be learned? McLean (2014) argues that health care providers are ill equipped to address the psychosocial needs of those in their care because the teaching of empathy is underdeveloped in education curricula.4 We are proposing here that whether an older adult/resident, hands-on staff, caregiver, volunteer, or administrator, developing and practicing empathetic habits can help increase personal satisfaction and add meaning to life.

Four Empathetic Habits To Cultivate

According to Roman Krznaric, Ph.D, it is possible to develop empathic habits. If you want to reduce burnout create a positive supportive climate in your organization, empathy is an excellent topic to discuss annually during resident, caregiver and staff meetings. Then using collaborative learning, use creative approaches to highlight the practice of empathy. For example, hold a fun challenge: Help 7 People in 7 Days. The focus on empathy as a discussion topic will encourage empathetic habits within an organization.

But what is an empathic habit? There are many but here are four that are easy to develop with a bit of practice.5

  1. Cultivate Curiosity About Others: An empathic habit can be as simple as cultivating curiosity about others. Especially strangers. It doesn’t need to take a long time – a minute can go a long way. Think about the resident down the hall that no one talks to. Find a way to sit with them somewhere throughout your day. Make it a habit to get to know those you don’t know well, whenever you can. But don’t interrogate, be inquisitive. Most people love to talk about themselves. Not only does this build positive relationships in your community, but it also helps you finding more meaning in your day as well.
  1. Challenge Prejudices: Another empathic habit is increasing the awareness of the prejudices around us and those that we have in ourselves. Many of us have stereotypes in our minds that challenge us. For example, older people are not interesting in learning new things (simply not true!). When you catch a prejudicial thought (and we all have them), reflect and rethink. Talk about it with a close friend or perhaps explore general prejudices at team meetings in a non-judgemental way. Making an effort to sit and listen to someone you find challenging can open up new and insightful ways to interact – often improving a troublesome relationship and making work easier.
  1. Listen Closely and Open Up: This is about setting aside our own problems, and really being open and attentive with somebody else. It is tough to do all day long. But not for just one minute. Try it at least once a day. When someone is sharing something with you, practice being centered and present with them,..listen completely. It is not immediately necessarily to focus on what to do about a problem they might have, but to be open to their experience. Try listening without thinking about what to say back, fixing it or one-upping it with a similar problem you have. Just walk alongside—let them know you really heard. Say thank you for sharing. Be real. When people feel listened to, many find the problems they have seem to lose their power. And they are no longer alone with whatever is troubling them. Listening closely and being present is a very rewarding habit to build, at work and at home.
  1. Help One Person Every Day: There is someone around you that needs help. It can be as simple as doing a chore for someone, offering a hug, pitching in to help with something that no one wants to do, phoning someone and saying hello, how are you doing? Or as simple as knocking on someone’s door, or offering to get someone a cup of coffee. Research confirms that this is possibly the most rewarding habit of all.Happiness is -helping others.

Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant with the weak and wrong. Sometime in your life, you will have been all of these.

Gautama Buddha


1 Cohen-Mansfield, J., Golander, H., Arnheim, G., & Cohen, R. (2014). Reactions and interventions for delusions in nursing home residents with dementia. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, In press. doi: 10.1177/1533317514522850

Zenasni, F., Boujut, E., Aude Woerner, & Sultan, S. (2012). Burnout and empathy in primary care: Three hypotheses. British Journal of General Practice, 62(600), 346-347. doi: 10.3399/bjgp12X652193

3 Nielsen, H. G., & Tulinius, C. (2009). Preventing burnout among general practitioners: Is there a possible route? Education for Primary Care, 20(5), 353-359.

4 McLean, C. L. (Ed.). (2014). Creative Arts in Humane Medicine. Toronto: Brush Education Inc.

5 Adapted from the Six Habits of Highly Empathic People:

It’s Good to Be Good (2012): 15th Annual Scientific Report on health, happiness and helping others. Stephen G. Post, PhD.


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