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Make empathy your superpower

Spirit, Inspiring Stories

Of all the things you can teach a person in their lifetime—from the time they are children to the time they are professionals in their field—some things are, quite frankly, preloaded. Can you teach someone how to relate to a fellow human? To feel emotions and respond to them in a positive way? Is there a college course that can teach you how to empathize with everyone?

According to Therese Courtenay, the director of inpatient nursing services at Adventist Health Castle in Kailua, Hawaii, you can. Along with her team at Castle, she decided to take action and create a sustainable way to educate her fellow employees on how to do more than just care for their patients, but to put themselves in their shoes. As it turns out, these small steps have huge impact.

It’s called the “Empathy in Action” program, and it started as an idea for Courtenay as she was trying to think of ways to improve patient experience at her hospital—she wanted to springboard off the quality of care that staff members were already providing, but to amplify it in line with living God’s love. “Empathy is all about having an appreciative perception of other peoples’ situation—whether it’s painful or happy—just having an understanding of it is so important,” says Courtenay. “When you connect with people, they have better outcomes.”

Through her research, Courtenay discovered a direct correlation between simple acts of empathy with patients and their overall health results. Eager to get the ball rolling on a project that would include all hospital employees, she applied for an Innovation Grant through Adventist Health. “I treated it like a school project,” she says, doing meticulous research and putting together a curriculum that would not just train people how to empathize with patients, but provide them the tools they’d need to teach others the skill, too. She wanted to empower as many people as possible to become “Empathy Champions.”

She won the grant.

So what’s it like to attend a class about empathy?

The “Empathy in Action” class has a pretty simple setup: On a large table in the center of the classroom, there’s a stack of small hand-sewn red hearts stuffed with rice and lavender with “Heart, Head, Heart” stitched in white thread. To the side of the room is a table stacked with shoes resting on their boxes, recalling images of an oddly-placed pop-up shoe store. As participants arrive, they are encouraged to sit next to someone they don’t know.


2 Ladies

he “lessons” are simple and guided by a few videos and exercises to put yourself, figuratively speaking, in your partner’s shoes. Bring on the role playing!

One of the activities involves a scripted scenario, where participants are invited to read and react to a “problem” (such as: “I’m upset about getting a parking ticket”), and the partner is told to respond first with no emotion or little kindness, and the second time to respond with empathy for the other person’s situation. Each participant then tells classmates how they felt when they were responded to with kindness versus no emotion. Clearly, the responses that showed kindness were favored.

The exercise took less than five minutes. Courtenay explains the simplicity of the activity, saying “Some people think it means a 45-minute counseling session. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about what we’re having now, a very brief connection.” Simple acts of kindness: A few extra minutes to simply ask someone how they are doing, to let them know they are being heard.

Woman presenting

The simple act of smiling at someone when walking into a room, or making eye contact—these are simple things Courtenay tells the class they can do that makes all the difference to a patient—and each other. One of the things stressed in the class is that rarely does an empathetic response begin with “At least…”. For example, responding to someone’s complaints about their husband with: “Well at least you have a husband.” Courtenay says it’s very easy to slip into a “fix it” or “give advice” mode with people instead of listening to what they need.

Another exercise involves the “Heart / Head / Heart” props filled with rice and lavender. The goal is to hold the heart in your hands and tell your partner your problem—such as being nervous about receiving a shot. The partner then takes the heart and responds first with their heart (“I understand that you’re upset about the shot.”), then with the head (“We’ll make sure you have a family member present when we give you the shot.”), then with their heart again (“We’re here for you and we’ll make sure you’re taken care of.”).

Is it possible for healthcare workers to have too much empathy? Courtenay says yes. “You want to lean in to connect with people, but if you lean in too far, you can find yourself becoming overwhelmed over what that person is going through.” Finding a balance between the two is key to creating and sustaining empathy in the everyday workplace.

By the end of the class, participants have learned that everyone has seeds of empathy within them, and the little actions they do to connect to their patients and coworkers—such as active listening and responding in kind—is the simplest way to nourish and grow a culture of empathy.

Courtenay says she’s taught the empathy class about 80 times so far, and continues to teach it about once a month. She trains “empathy champions” to keep the conversation and empathy-enhancing activities ongoing. Through one simple grant, Courtenay has inspired hundreds of people to practice and preach kindness. She encourages everyone to make the class their own—there is no wrong way to empathize with each other. Because of the innovation grant, she and her team have become a golden example of how Adventist Health employees are living the mission to care for the community—which is the head and heart of what we do.