by Steve Adubato, PhD

Consider the words of Henry David Thoreau; “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” These are the words that begin a powerful and profound must-see video on YouTube that has been posted by the folks at the Cleveland Clinic simply entitled, “Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care”.

I heard about this video from a hospital administrator who was referred to it by a nurse who said she sometimes “forgets why she does what she does” and in those cases tends to communicate in a less than empathetic fashion with her patients and their families.

In the video, which lasts a little more than four minutes and has no narration, scenes of patients, hospital staff, visitors and family members are shown with simple captions. Some of the scenes include a woman on dialysis and the caption; “Day 29…Waiting for a new heart.” There is a mother with her head down with the graphic; “19-year-old son on life support.” Another shows two men on an escalator, with the caption for the first man, “Tumor was benign”, and then the second man, “Tumor was malignant”, which is followed by video of a wife and a young daughter. The words that follow; “Husband is terminally ill…visiting dad for the last time.”

This extraordinary video communicates so much in such a short period of time. It ends on a powerful note with the caption; “If you could stand in someone else’s shoes. Hear what they hear. See what they see. Feel what they feel. Would you treat them differently?”

That IS the question. I encourage you to go to YouTube and check it out. Virtually everyone that sees it has a visceral reaction. But the part that is most profound from a communication perspective is that the ability to empathize—in fact the awareness of the need to empathize—is something we MUST remind ourselves to do. For the vast majority of us, we might see these same people in the exact same hospital setting and not think anything of what could be going on in their world and the impact it has on how they act and communicate.

How many of us are turned off because we say hello to someone who doesn’t respond. We are convinced they are rude when in fact they may have a “19-year-old son on life support”. In reality, we can’t know for sure what is going on in the minds of those around us, but one of the biggest dangers in the communication game is to become so consumed with our own reality that we become oblivious to the reality of those around us. We lose the ability and the willingness to even TRY to empathize with others, and as a result, our relationships suffer. When we later find out what was REALLY going on with the other person, we often regret our initial reaction and say to ourselves; “If I had only known that was happening, I wouldn’t have acted that way.”

But consider a different approach. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. If you are in a hospital and a person looks despondent and not particularly friendly, ask yourself what COULD be going on that might cause such a reaction? Become more “other centered” in your thinking and your communication and then ask the person; “How are things going?” Give him or her the option of opening up. By showing concern or interest in others, we are communicating in a more compassionate and empathetic fashion. But this takes a shift in thinking that requires us to be less focused on OUR circumstance in that moment and more focused on those around us. For some, this is a giant step indeed.