Doctors giving empathic statements, allowing time for family members to respond were more likely to learn important information.

In a qualitative study of 68 pediatric intensive care consultations with 179 family members, to address the question: ‘When doctors attend to family emotions, how does it influence ensuing communication?’ found that using empathic statements gained important information. Giving time for family responses (coded as an unburied response), rather than just burying empathy in a mass of medical information (coded as a buried response), the doctors were more likely to learn important information about the family’s fears, values, and motivations.

The study states that ‘Families have consistently reported a desire for their doctors to show empathy. Empathy is a vital component of high-quality health care, and medical staff statements of empathy are an important source of support for patients and their families. Literature from adult ICUs suggests doctors infrequently show empathy and often miss opportunities to connect with families.’

When things go wrong in healthcare, this approach of empathic communication is vitally important still. In fact, when a resolution is sought, empowering staff to gain access to patient and loved ones, fears, values and motivations, is a key component.

“You will never be able to hit a target that you cannot see” Robin S Sharma

So often when conflict arises, the view is that both sides need to get back to a place of no conflict. Yet, as I discuss when training healthcare professionals, and complaints teams/serious incident investigators, their starting point is already a conflict of interest. The organisation is often coming from a procedural driver and the patient and/or loved one, from an often very strong emotional driver. They have an emotional investment because this is their life or the life of someone they love. Both sides often having fear, conscious or unconscious impacting on them.

When a death has occurred, grief processes can get stuck and whilst much is spoken about patients and loved ones never wanting things to happen to anyone else, it must not be forgotten that this frequently publicised driver is embedded very firmly in the fact that something has already happened to them or their loved one. They, therefore, have their own fears, values and motivations pushing them forward.

Empowering staff to understand this and gain more confidence to respond to it, as shown with the challenging communication between paediatric doctors and the families of critically ill children, interactions are enhanced through the understanding and demonstration of empathic communication. Being seen, heard and understood is vital in building a relationship with another and never more vital that when that understandable conflict of interest is already present.

To know more about how training that C&C Empathy Training carries out can support healthcare and complaints organisations, see here.

For the full website, please see

Carolyn Cleveland, the founder of C&C Empathy Training, has a background of counselling and psychology, specialising in bereavement, fear and anxiety, but has also gone through the NHS complaints system, bring an authenticity and real-life application to her training programme. 100% of those attending in the last 12 months would recommend her and her programme. 



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