It seems that “empathy” has become one of the most popular buzzwords in dentistry, and in spite of the popularity of its use, few people understand what it is and why it is so important.
Confusion may be rooted in dictionary definitions such as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
Can we really understand and share the feelings of another?
Avrom King used to say, “There is no such thing as a second-hand feeling.” It’s impossible for us to fully understand the feelings of another person. In truth, the best we can do is contemplate intellectually what a person MIGHT be feeling and then project our feelings upon our thinking.
Our feelings, and our patients’ feelings are unique to us and them. They cannot be fully explained or understood by others. Yet, they are valid because what we feel is our reality.
Our brains function based on mental models or “thought constructions.” These thought constructions may be fairly accurate, total fabrication, or something in-between. But in all cases, they are still our reality. And the only way for us to square the inaccuracy of our thought constructions with reality is to test them against what we perceive to be reality.
Perceptions are open to review. They change.
And, there is another problem. Our perception of reality is a thought construction as well. In other words, our brains function by testing our thought constructions against our thought constructions, and then we call the most successful ones “beliefs.”
Because a belief is still a thought construction, it is always up for review with regard to accuracy, unless of course, we don’t want to do that. And in that case, we choose to become dogmatic instead of continuously being open to refining our version of reality.
So, why is understanding this important? Because beliefs, dogma, and empathy all fully infuse the relationship we have with ourselves as well as our patients.
What we think they think influences how we think.
Let me say that again. What we think they think influences how we think. So, if we come into a new relationship with beliefs about ourselves and other people which are rigid and dogmatic, then it is very unlikely that we will find the whole truth, and most certainly, we will never even come close to understanding our patient’s perspective. Yet, our patient’s perspective is the complete source of their motivation to act or change their perspective.
Empathy is an attempt to understand another’s thoughts and feelings.
Giving others quality attention signals we are interested in understanding what they think and feel. It signals that their thoughts and feelings are important to us. Empathizing is an act of caring about another person. When we give others this kind and quality of attention, it allows them to feel safe and accepted. And in that space, they are more likely to re-assess their beliefs about dentistry, dentists, and what dentistry might be able to do for them. Consequently empathy, non-judgmental acceptance, and behaving in a transparent authentic fashion is the pathway towards facilitating change in others. This is what Carl Rogers called “congruence.”
When patients feel supported and risk committing to change, we call it trust.
Change in attitudes, beliefs, and perspectives is what causes patients to commit to significant change, which at the end of the day is a risk…a risk taken because they feel like the people around them will support and care for them along their journey toward new understandings, perspectives, and experiences. And when that happens, we call it “trust,” which is at the foundation of every enduring and meaningful relationship.