Practice Empathy—The Master Habit
Tip 14: Practice Empathy—The Master Habit
Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.
- Dan Pink
When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems.
- Stephen Covey
Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
A definition of marketing that I really like, put forth many years ago by Ted Levitt, Harvard's esteemed professor of marketing, is that all marketing is the creation and maintenance of relationships. It is a simple and powerful way to look at any business. The problem is making it happen. There is no greater asset a dental practice can have than the habit of empathy. Texas A&M, professor of marketing, Leonard Berry, an expert in the field of customer experience and service, lists empathy as the third most important aspect of customer service, behind dependability and reliability. Dentists are notorious for lacking empathy, especially in times that have been known to have a deficit of empathy cross-culturally. As a culture we have become extremely self focused. People today need to be acknowledged and validated. It is a very effective way to get your patient's attention, and in today's world, attention means everything.
First, let us define empathy. The dictionary defines empathy as the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions. There are many ways of saying the same thing. One of my favorite modern day philosophers, Zig Ziglar, is famous for saying, "You will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want." And he was right at many levels. But to help people get what they want we must develop empathy.
People come to us with many fears, and a lack of understanding about dentistry. We assume they know more than they do about teeth, health and what we do. They have many questions that go unasked. It is our job to help them understand what we can do for them by breaking down their existing frames of reference about dentistry. This educational process can only occur when we break down the barriers of communication by building trust through exhibiting empathy.
In my earlier books, I referenced the concept of WIDIOM, which is an acronym for Would I Do It On Me. I first learned that from Dr. Peter Dawson. It is a good way of remembering to apply The Golden Rule. For years I would keep that in the front of my mind when seeing patients. Through the years I have come to realize that there is another rule…The Platinum Rule. The Golden Rule states we should do unto others as we would do unto ourselves. The Platinum Rule states we should do unto others as they would do unto themselves. The Platinum Rule expresses a higher level of empathy. It opens the door to treat all of our patients appropriately according their circumstances and objectives.
You may be asking yourself if empathy can be developed. Maybe you think you are not a very empathic person. Contrary to what most people think, our brains are actually wired for altruism, cooperation and empathy. Empathy, not apathy or self-centeredness is at the heart of who we really are. We could not have survived as a species without cooperation and empathy. Many early philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud believed that man always acted in his own self-interest, but the latest brain research has shown that man is predisposed to empathy.
In 1990, mirror neurons were discovered that showed we have the capacity to feel another's pain. Affective empathy is just one half of the equation. Understanding the other's perspective is the other half. Another discovery is that of HOME (human oxytocin-mediated empathy). Oxytocin is secreted when there is a level of understanding and validation, which leads to further empathy. It is interesting to note that this mechanism is not present under stress. This is another reason to take our time with patients to develop trust. This new science explains why our personal empathy is not fixed and that our brains are plastic.
Today, medical schools are teaching physicians to learn empathy, for like music it can be learned. Education experts today are beginning to believe that empathy should become part of the core curriculum like reading and math.
There are many ways to develop the virtue or habit of excellence, and with practice it will become the cornerstone for a very humanistic practice of dentistry, probably the one virtue that will distinguish dentists the most in the future.
Become Spock-like. Get into a mind-meld mindset. Imagine yourself knowing what the other is thinking. There are many ways to build the habit of empathy. Below is a list that can get you started. In addition to the specific skills like listening, questioning and storytelling will also build emotional intelligence and empathy.
- Use creative storytelling to imagine yourself in the life of the other. Great empathists, like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were masters of this. Empathy is at the heart of storytelling. Close the emotional gap—empathize with the protagonist. Expand your thinking to the lives of other people.
- Be aware of facial expressions. Patients do not always express their true feeling in words.
- Immerse yourself in the actual dental experience, Feel that fear, feel the financial pressure. Many dentists are masters of the "should," without ever having experienced what it is to have extensive dentistry.
- Practice the art of conversation. Learn the language of empathy and take the time to understand patients.
- Be curious about the lives of patients…as Pankey used to say, their circumstances, objectives and temperament.
- Share your story with people…go deep. Go further than small talk about the weather and sports. As author Brene' Brown advises, become vulnerable.
- Open yourself up to others…take off your mask. Actually this is Tip 15, possibly the most important tip…Be Yourself.
Return to Table of Contents