Blog – Our One Truth in Business – the importance and challenges of empathy

Having the courage to stay with someone’s distress long enough, has a powerful effect: it validates their experience. But more than that, it validates their feelings, their life, their truth.

And this one truth as I see it, has guided my and business partner Vanessa’s lives for as long as we can remember.

From me it is staying with the distress of a 4 year old girl as she grieved for her mum (my friend). To staying with that same child’s distress when she herself ended up in hospital 11 years later aged 15. To then needing so very much for people to stay with my distress as I grieved when this girl, who by then was a daughter to me, tragically lost her own life.

Vanessa had to stay with patients’ and loved ones’ distress as a nurse, in particularly in intensive care. She knew that the key to handling difficult conversations was engaging sufficiently to hear, and I mean really hear, all that was being said, no matter how subtle the cues were to how someone was feeling and what they needed.  This ‘truth’, as I see it, has been an intrinsic and important part of our experiences and now guides our business. So whilst we are still in our first year of trading, this particular training business of ours, indeed our passion and purpose, has in fact been in gestation for many, many years. It is now out of our heads, on paper and being disseminated to promote staff wellbeing, good patient experience and communication with care.

What we believe:

As a company, we believe in the power of empathy, of evoking and listening to emotions, in understanding, and in responding to empathy. We believe in the power of emotional development and how these processes in communication help to prevent prolonged psychological harm (a requirement now statuary in the Duty of Candour, but given little guidance as to how this is met), and which when not achieved can create a powerfully negative experience.

What we don’t believe:

We don’t believe in perfection or in ‘magic words’ in communication. We don’t believe that challenging or facing difficult emotional situations is easy. In fact it dehumanizes professionals by denying them the real emotional impact which is often a part of highly emotional and challenging work. We expect them to show compassion and human connection but so often deny them the training and support to enable them to feel human themselves. Our thoughts and emotions, difficult or otherwise feed into our behaviours, actions, colour our experiences and affect our outcomes.


The communication button:

Always finding communication easy suggests that we are always operating on the same constant level and that stress, anxiety, joy, happiness and grief do not exist or affect us. But of course they do exist and have the ability to affect us greatly, both consciously and unconsciously. Patients and loved ones are often out of their comfort zones too or frightened in health and social care communication. We do not, however press a ‘communication button’ on or off but are communicating all the time. Our work therefore, drawing on my practice as a counsellor and service user of the NHS complaints system and Vanessa’s as a nurse and psychology teacher, is to support health and social care professionals through our LEED Communications Programme ® to explore openly, honestly, and transparently the role that empathy and emotional development has in how we communicate.

Through conference speaking and our four core training courses in communication, complaints, end of life and mindfulness, we help professionals to: understand and minimize conflict; understand emotional motivations; understand the science behind how we interact; understand how we experience and manage difficult conversations and; finally how we look after our own emotional wellbeing.

How do we do this? … Well, although embedded in science, counselling skills and research, we, as trainers, emulate openness, honesty and transparency. We create a safe environment where honesty is a prerequisite and it starts with us.

Research has long shown that stories help us to develop empathy, seeing another’s world in ways that you don’t always get access to. Isn’t that why we laugh, cry, turn our face away and feel scared watching films? Our empathy is being evoked, our responses are not always sympathetic, but we are tapping into another’s emotions.

Using our own stories (narratives), which are emotive to say the least, gives those who attend our training, or sit listening to me at a conference, permission to feel their humanity; their own feelings and emotions. To not expect perfection of themselves, because they are, at the end of the day, human health and social care professionals, not computers (and let’s face it computers crash and are far from perfect too). Time and again the faces of those listening and engaging in our training approach, show almost relief; not having to expect themselves to easily conquer fearful and difficult feelings; not feeling a failure if they are struggling.

Neither however are they encouraged to ignore these feelings, far from it. We encourage and support them to be aware of the deeper levels of communication that are present in themselves and others, reactions and feelings which can unconsciously affect their behaviours, actions and results. We support people to stay in an enquiring mind and consciousness, to listen to others and to listen to themselves. And we support people to believe in what they feel is right, knowing the possible impact of not doing this, but not feeling like they are never expected to struggle with the processes.

We believe that embedding empathy and emotional development at organisational culture level has a positive impact on work force wellbeing and outcomes for the patients, so we have an Empathy Envoy Register © for individuals and organisations to join to show support for this. We at C&C Empathy Training wish to showcase good empathic practice brought to our attention.

Having won the Open University New Business Award in 2015, we are obviously very proud of the work we do. But more than that, both Vanessa and I are doing what we believe in and have for many years. We are proud to work with a dedicated workforce. We are proud to be highlighting the patient and loved one’s perspectives and emotions within complaints and communications. Most of all though, we are proud of our ‘truth’.

Published as guest blog for FoNS 7 June 2015

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