Tip # 134 Empathy

Many of us went into the field of nutrition because we want to help people. In our training, we learned about the impact of food intake on medical issues so as to make people’s lives better.

Seek the wisdom of the ages,
but look at the world through the eyes of a child.

Ron Wild

For me happiness does not come from wealth and fame;
it comes from being helpful.

Fred Rogers

As we began practice, we discovered that helping our clients make use of our expert advice gets complicated. Food is tied up with emotions and the complexities of life. Here are just a few examples:

  • Fear about the consequences of a condition
  • Confusion about what to do
  • Anger at having to limit food choices or about being nagged
  • Stress of financial limitations
  • Sadness about the effects of aging
  • Care for family members overtaking self-care

Sometimes clients share these feelings very openly with us. Sometimes we just notice them as we discuss the concrete aspects of diet. Since we are human, we naturally empathize. Empathy can be seen as a resonating that occurs in us when we are in the presence of a person experiencing a certain emotion or state. It allows us to recognize and understand what that person is going through. Empathy is what allows us to then feel compassion. Compassion is one of the four elements of the spirit of motivational interviewing (Tip #128). Empathy is also an essential part of the engaging process (Tip #115). So empathy is essential to MI. If we ignore (or appear to ignore) emotions, clients are apt to tune us out. It also tends to lead to active discord in the session.

How can we employ our natural ability to empathize in the best service of a client struggling to make health behavior changes? Feeling empathy and becoming aware of it are a great first step. Sometimes this just happens with no effort. You find yourself easily “getting” the client.

We all experience situations or clients where empathy is a challenge. Empathy is always harder when you are tired or stressed yourself. If you have judgments about this person’s behavior or you don’t like him, empathy is difficult though not impossible. It is not necessary to like or approve of someone in order to empathize. It does take a bit more effort to put yourself in that person’s shoes and imagine what it is like to be him. You can choose to deliberately practice this.

Whether the empathy comes easily or not, to be effective it needs to be communicated. You can make straightforward reflections (Tip #95). For example, after hearing “I’m tired of keeping food records,” you may say, “You are sick of recording your food.” It is more effective to go the extra step to say what you believe the person really feels or means that was not directly stated. For example, “You are sad that with diabetes staying healthy means attending to your food at each meal.” Accurate empathy often means going out on a limb to express the larger picture that you sense.

It is possible to take empathy so far that you lose sight of the boundarybetween yourself and the other person. One danger is that you will forget some of what you need to attend to as a professional. The other is that you will help the client stay stuck in a negative, unresourceful state. If you are so in tune that you are stuck, too, this does not help the client. The challenge is to resonate accurately with the feelings or state of the client while maintaining a stable foundation.

How can you communicate that you get it while not getting mired in the client’s stuck place? Include in your reflections some of the strengths and efforts that you observe (Tips #63 and #132). Keep track of what you know about this person’s creativity in finding solutions that work for her and mention them.

Cultivating empathy that is both accurate and effective takes practice. Here is a video that gives you a chance to practice empathy.

Posted in Tips