Monday, April 13, 2015


Nurturing empathy in all of us

Have you sometimes felt like nobody understands you?   And didn’t it feel great when you connected with somebody who was “in the same boat” as you?  This is a perfect example of empathy.  Roman Krznaric, PhD, founding faculty member of The School of Life in London describes empathy as “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions.”   It is not to be confused with kindness or pity. 

Why is empathy important?  It’s vital for our society because it facilitates understanding and connection to those around us.  It’s the foundation for building a supportive and thriving community.
When I was a clinical instructor for nursing students at the University of Connecticut, I discovered early on that each student absorbed the information best through experiential learning.  Student nurses can learn all about acute back strain from medical books, but it’s difficult to truly understand how severe back pain can affect the ability to concentrate, work, sleep, etc. unless you’ve experienced it.
I had my students simulate symptoms of illnesses or medical treatments and therapies whenever possible. For instance, each student had to wear a colostomy bag for three days to experience what it was like for those patients they would be caring for post-operatively.  I had them jab their finger with a lancet to test their blood sugar, just as they would have to teach new diabetics to do four times a day.  And, I had them smear petroleum jelly on their glasses then try to navigate the hallways to simulate macular degeneration or low vision,
How can we nurture empathy in ourselves and our children?  For one, we have to listen without judgment.  Listen intently to what the other person is saying – without interruption.  Then, we have to practice it.  Put down the cell phone and look around at the other people wherever we are.  Imagine who they might be, and what they might be thinking and feeling.
Dr. Helen Riess is director of the Empathy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She believes empathy is a crucial skill that can be learned, and through her program she is making strides to “change the world from the inside out.”  Sounds like a good goal for all of us.
Alice Facente is a community health nurse for the Backus Health System. This advice should not replace the advice of your personal health care provider. To comment on this column or others, visit the Healthy Living blog at or e-mail Ms. Facente or any of the Healthy Living columnists at

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