Empathy as Medicine

Research clearly indicates that the greatest predictor of why people change is empathy on the part of the professional.  So how do we show empathy in a conversation to allow our clients to experience empathy versus just generating an empty chair of sympathy?

How do we use empathetic reflections that allow our clients to know we understand their thoughts and feelings?  It starts with going beyond the content of what we are hearing. In Motivational Interviewing, we sometimes refer to it as the “backstory” of reflecting feelings or thoughts that have not been stated.

If a client says “I don’t have time to exercise” and you reiterate or repeat that statement it is unlikely to progress the conversation towards change.  However, in reflecting “although your time is full, you’re trying to figure out how to best put activity in your schedule” you are demonstrating empathy, understanding and pulling for the value of what the client desires.  Ending on the value or desire of the client will increase movement towards change.

The words are one thing, but the kindness and tone of the words are what makes it empathetic.  Many times, in learning MI, practitioners don’t make these types of reflections, which we refer to as “complex” since they are afraid it will upset the client or they will make a wrong assumption.  In MI, there is no penalty for guessing. If you have the “spirit” of MI of collaboration, compassion, acceptance and evocation, the client will correct you and tell you their truth which will open the conversation towards change.

We say in MI – a small change in how you are or what you reflect – can make a huge impact in your clients towards change – making your empathetic words like medicine for your clients.