Cultivating Empathy as a Caregiver

Learn to be a more empathetic family caregiver with these tips.

If you ask parents, educators and researchers what are the most important traits to encourage in a child’s development, you would undoubtedly receive a variety of responses, but two of the top responses would likely be kindness and empathy. Yet one study reported that less than 2% of our interactions include a “sincere acknowledgement of the other.”

One of the more heartbreaking calls we receive at Nightingale Homecare is when a caregiver calls to request our service, stating that he or she is failing to feel empathy toward a loved one in need – often the result of “caregiver burnout.”

Empathy is an especially important skill for caregivers. Studies have shown that caregiver empathy plays a critical role in forging a strong patient-caregiver relationship while developing a deep level of rapport and trust. Practiced empathy also plays an important role in increasing patient treatment adherence and reducing accidents. Improving your empathy and kindness can also have huge positive effects on every other relationship!

Empathy Defined

Most people would define empathy as the ability to have a sense of understanding and compassion for another person, while being able to sense what the other person is experiencing; i.e., “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” According to author Daniel Goleman, who wrote the book Emotional Intelligence, empathy is:

  1. Understanding the emotional makeup of a person, and
  2. Treating that person according to his or her emotional reactions

Treating people with empathy and responding to their emotions includes high levels of compassion and tolerance. Fortunately, there are tools for practicing this response towards others.

Active Listening

One of the key elements to conveying empathy and compassion toward another human being is to actively listen.

The steps are as follows:

  • Concentrate on not speaking while the other person is speaking
  • Pay attention to the words and emotion
  • Look directly into the person’s eyes while he or she is speaking
  • Listen, do not be thinking of preparing a reply
  • Pay attention to the person’s behaviors and body language
  • Let the person know you are listening; for example, shaking your head or squeezing his or her hand in reassurance
  • When the person stops speaking, try to paraphrase or translate what you heard and reflect on this
  • Try to recognize the individual’s feelings; for example, “You sound upset and frustrated”

Some other key elements to keep in mind while actively listening are:

  • Do not interrupt
  • Do not change the subject
  • Do not voice disapproval

Controlling the Urge to Help

During active listening, it’s important to control your urge to jump in and help or offer advice while the person is expressing feelings and emotions. Simply be present in the conversation. It is a difficult urge to control, as most of us responding to an upset person give advice, words of encouragement or comfort. While well-intentioned, these responses interfere with the person talking because our verbalizations result from our thinking about how to help and what the person’s words mean to us, rather than thinking about what the person’s words mean to him or her.

Controlling the Urge to Talk

Research on conversations has found that the person not talking usually starts talking about nine-tenths of a second after the other person stops. Developing the ability to wait, listen, and encourage the other to talk without interrupting is a critical skill. It can be developed by intentional awareness and with practice. Being more aware of opportunities to switch from talking to listening expands your consciousness and choice, which will help increase your flexibility and ease in using empathy effectively.

Can Empathy Be Faked?

It may be necessary while you are caregiving to act empathetically to achieve a positive outcome, even when you feel apathetic toward a loved one. When caring for a difficult loved one, you will still need to act empathetic in order to establish the rapport necessary to encourage the delivery of care. What is interesting with this approach is that often you will begin to feel true empathy toward a difficult loved one as a result of “acting” empathetic. The old adage “fake it till you make it” rings true.

Random Acts of Kindness

In the meantime, along with your empathy practice, throw in some random acts of kindness. This will help develop your empathy skills and you will begin to notice the world is a little better because of it, and the people around you will begin to model your kindness. It’s infectious!

Here are some fun activities that you can do to celebrate kindness:

  • Compliment the first three people you talk to
  • Write a hand-written note to a friend
  • Say good morning to the person next to you on the elevator(bus/subway/street)
  • Spend 10 minutes picking up litter in a park or your neighborhood
  • Place uplifting notes in library books, on restroom mirrors, on someone’s locker or computer screen
  • Hold up inspiring signs during rush hour
  • Leave a generous tip
  • Send flowers to a friend

If you run out of kindness ideas, The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has lots of them on their website.

Empathy is one of the primary building blocks of social intelligence. Often, stress, self-absorption, lack of time and caregiver burnout can kill efforts to practice empathy. Knowing what your barriers are to showing empathy and exploring ways to overcome them can help you develop this much-needed skill that is vital to caring for a loved one in need.

And know that Nightingale Homecare’s compassionate and highly skilled providers of home care assistance in Scottsdale and the surrounding area are always on hand to help with the professional respite care that allows family members to take as much or as little time as desired for self-care – enabling you to return to caring for your loved one refreshed and renewed. Call us at (602) 504-1555 to learn more!