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Empathy. Can you get it right?

By 28 October 2017Language Tips

Showing empathy

Cultural differences in talking to patients

Having taught OET for a number of years to students from many different countries, I have learnt that different cultures give information to patients in different ways. In some countries I understand, it is normal for bad news about a patient’s health to be delivered to their family to pass onto the patient. In other countries, healthcare professionals talk and tell while patients simply listen and do what they are told.

Where OET is recognised, in Australia or the UK for example, communication is patient centred. This has not always been the case. In fact it has probably been changing to this state during the last 30-40 years. However, increasingly, patients are having more say in their healthcare and treatment options. This can prove challenging for professionals unused to this open communication between themselves and a patient.

The meaning of empathy

One key area where patient centred communication is especially important is in showing empathy to your patient. But what exactly is empathy? A dictionary will tell you that empathy means:

the ability to understand how someone else feels because you can imagine what it is like to be them.

In other words then, it means to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Direct empathy

Sometimes, you can literally put yourself in someone else’s shoes because you have experienced the same thing. For example, a midwife who is also a mother can put herself in an expectant mother’s shoes because she has experienced pregnancy. Another example could be a physiotherapist treating a patient with tennis elbow having experienced tennis elbow themselves.

In these case, you can use direct language to show empathy:

I understand your concerns about choosing whether to opt for pain-relief during labour. I faced the same decision myself before I was due to give birth.


In my experience, the best relief for the symptoms of tennis elbow is complete rest from the action which caused the injury in the first place.

Indirect empathy

Sometimes though, you can’t so easily imagine what it must be like to be in that person’s shoes because you have not experienced it for yourself. You might have treated other patients with similar conditions and prognoses but it’s not the same as having the experience personally. For example, a doctor who needs to tell a family that they have not been able to save the life of a family member involved in a car accident. Or a dentist treating a homeless person with a large number of rotten teeth.

These situations therefore require different more indirect language to show empathy:

I can’t begin to imagine how you are feeling to receive this news. Please know we did everything we possibly could to save your family member.


I can only appreciate it must be a low priority for you to care for your teeth when you are homeless. Before you leave, I will give you a toothbrush and toothpaste to keep you going for a while.

It can be a small difference such as the replacement of ‘understand’ with ‘appreciate’. Understand suggests knowledge of something while appreciate is simply awareness that something is possible.

Making patients feel important

It is human nature that we like to feel that our problem is unique to us. Being spoken to like we are just one of a crowd has the impact of making us feel insignificant and unimportant. Choosing the right empathetic phrase can avoid this for your patient.