Ways to Demonstrate Empathy in Nursing

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Written by Morganne Skinner, BSN Content Writer, IntelyCare
Nurse actively listening to a patient

Nurses spend much more time with patients than physicians or other healthcare professionals. One study found that 86% of patient care was provided by nurses. Nurses can influence a patient’s satisfaction, mood, comfort level, and overall healthcare experience.

The way nurses interact and communicate with patients can help set the tone for a patient’s healthcare visit. Displaying empathy in nursing is one crucial way to build trust and create safe spaces with patients.

What Is Empathy in Nursing?

Empathy is the ability to see and understand another person’s experience, perspective, and situation without judgment or becoming attached. Empathy contains two main components: emotional and cognitive.

Emotional empathy is the practice of feeling and seeing the emotions of another. For example, if a patient begins to cry when they receive their diagnosis, the sight of them crying could make you feel sad and cry too. You feel their emotion with them.

Cognitive empathy is the practice of self-regulation in response to the emotion that is felt. Following the same example, if you see the patient is hurting and you understand why they feel upset about receiving their diagnosis of stage IV cancer, cognitive empathy is seeing their sadness and understanding it.

How Are Empathy and Sympathy Different?

Sympathy is feeling pity, upset, or sad for someone else due to their situation or experience. Empathy goes beyond sympathy — it is not feeling bad for them, but understanding why they feel the way they do.

Why Is Empathy Important in Healthcare?

As you know, communication skills are fundamental for healthcare professionals. Being able to communicate effectively can be a life-or-death scenario. Things like how a patient takes a medication, how a physician responds to a nurse’s description of a patient’s symptoms, and how a patient prepares for a procedure can influence how critical decisions are made.

Why Is Empathy Important for Patients?

It may sound like common sense, but patients feel more satisfied in their care when they are treated with empathy. They also have better clinical outcomes, less anxiety, and less distress.

Why Is Empathy in Nursing Important?

Empathy in nursing has benefits for nurses too. A study found that nurses who showed empathy had higher job satisfaction, greater job commitment, and reduced burnout.

What Are Barriers to Empathy in Nursing?

Sometimes, you have the best intentions but you aren’t able to express empathy like you desire.

Common barriers to expressing empathy in nursing include:

  • Lack of time
  • High number of patients
  • Task-centeredness
  • Poor manager support
  • Lack of formal training

Tips to Demonstrate Empathy in Nursing

There are many ways to show empathy in nursing. Examples include verbal and nonverbal cues, providing a calm and happy environment, and consoling and comforting patients.

Below we’ve outlined key tips to teach you how to show empathy to patients in your nursing practice.

1. Active Listening

Show interest in what your patient has to say. Make eye contact when culturally appropriate. Face them when they are speaking. Try summarizing or restating what they’ve said.

For example, if your patient described feeling overwhelmed about going home: Turn to look at them. Nod occasionally as they are talking. Say, “You are feeling overwhelmed about going home. You are worried you won’t be able to take care of yourself. Is that right?”

This way of showing empathy conveys to the patients that you see them and hear them. The result can be a feeling of trust and rapport that helps patients feel more comfortable discussing symptoms, barriers to treatment, and questions.

2. Be Respectful

It is of paramount importance that you treat patients with respect. Practically speaking, this means providing equal, equitable, unbiased care.

Respectful care also means respecting patients’ boundaries, preferences, goals, desires, and autonomy. It’s your job to provide health information and nursing advice — patients get to choose what to do with that information.

You can also show respect by:

  • Asking patients what pronouns they prefer
  • Introducing yourself and explaining your role
  • Asking patients what their goals are
  • Making information accessible to them

3. Express Cultural Competence

Acknowledging and understanding a patient’s culture is one of the most important components of demonstrating empathy in nursing. You don’t need to be an expert — you just need to be aware. Avoid generalizations and assumptions. Instead, ask questions.

Take your patient’s culture into consideration when creating care plans, advocating for them, and interacting with them. Remember, how you view empathy and your patient’s condition may not be the same way they view it.

Gain an understanding of your patient’s perspective of their situation. Ask these questions to better understand how your patient’s culture influences their perception of their condition:

  • What do you call your condition?
  • What do you think caused your condition?
  • What do you fear most about your condition?
  • What treatment do you think you should receive?

4. Offer Comfort

Comfort is the ease from pain and distress that is accompanied by a feeling of acceptance and being cared for. While the notion of comfort may be universally important, the definition may vary patient to patient. Start with your assessment and ask your patient what would be comforting to them.

Common ways to offer comfort include: holding your patient’s hand, providing a warm blanket, bringing them a cup of warm tea (when allowed), dimming the lights.

5. Show Support

Be attuned to how your patient is feeling. Are they angry or afraid? Are they frustrated or overwhelmed? Meet them where they are and offer support.

Do they need assistance with transportation to keep their follow-up appointment? Help them. Are they experiencing a major life change? Share local support groups with them.

Find out what your patient needs, and connect them to the available resources. This will differ patient to patient. Ask your charge nurse or nurse manager for assistance in locating appropriate resources.

6. Embrace Their Humanity

In the midst of the hustle and bustle, patients can go from people to cases. Names with unique stories and lives to diagnoses with a room number attached.

Keep them human. Give a face to their name. Remember that the patient in Room 8 with COPD is a father, husband, and friend. Remember their fears, their goals, their passions.

Consider how your care plan will affect their life. Are they about to make a big move? Did they just start a new job? How many children are at home?

Embracing their humanity also means offering forgiveness, grace, and giving them the benefit of doubt. Sometimes all you need to do is slow down and take a deep breath before entering your patient’s room. By grounding yourself and bringing your awareness to the present moment, you can see the person in front of you and treat them as such.

Upgrade Your Nursing Practice

Implementing empathy in nursing can have wonderful benefits, like improved job satisfaction and commitment. If you’re craving a change in your workplace, consider looking at the opportunities IntelyCare has available. Learn more and apply today.