Empathy in Counseling: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Alyssa Campbell

Alyssa is an active RN and teaches Nursing and Leadership university courses. She also has a Doctorate in Nursing Practice and a Master's in Business Administration.

Empathy is a powerful skill that connects people through the ability to relate to another's personal perspective and emotions. In this lesson learn how empathy can be applied while providing counseling in a health care setting.

Empathy in the Healthcare Environment

Health care environments are full of emotionally challenging moments and experiences. While happy and exciting situations like the birth of a child do exist within this setting, many other stressful and difficult events occur. Experiences like receiving devastating news, the death of a loved one, and preparing for complex surgical procedures cause enormous amounts of psychological stress. These are some examples in which counseling by a member of the healthcare team may be appropriate.

There are many ways for healthcare professionals to display empathy towards others while counseling them. Empathy is the ability for one person to connect with another in terms of feelings, emotions, and understanding of the person's situation or hardship. Jessica, a new nurse on the oncology floor, is still learning how to manage patients who are struggling with their cancer treatments. She closely watches the interactions that her preceptor has with other patients and colleagues and takes a mental note on how to incorporate empathy more regularly into her practice.

Managing Patient Issues

Jessica routinely prepares and administers potent medications to help her patients combat cancer. Her clinical skills are sound, and she has no difficulty in making adjustments in her schedule to accommodate patient requests. After some personal reflection on her development as a new nurse, Jessica has found that she feels uncomfortable when patients express their fears and concerns regarding treatment.

Jessica's preceptor has also noticed the same deficit, and she agrees to help coach Jessica to be more empathic with others. Jessica learns that there are a few characteristics of empathy that will help to focus her efforts in terms of:

  • Perspective
  • Emotion
  • Understanding

Jessica decides that on top of active listening (taking time to really listen to what the other is saying), she will try to relate to her patients' perspective and emotions in an attempt to understand their state of mind and where they are coming from.

The next day as Jessica enters her first patient's room to redress wounds and give medication, she quickly realizes that her patient is frowning and teary eyed. Although she is on a tight schedule, she pulls up a chair to comfort her patient. The patient begins to share that his wife was in a car accident that morning and that while he is glad she is ok, he will really miss her company that day. At first, Jessica thinks the patient is being selfish. When she takes a moment and remembers to be empathic, she tries to understand from his perspective. She knows that her patient looks forward to his wife's company every day and that he relies on her support to get through his painful treatments.

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