The Art of Empathy

Empathy is widely understood in the nursing world but are we empathetic to our patients? Here are ways to show empathy even when you don't think you are empathetic. These techniques can help develop your own craft. Nurses Relations Article

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The Art of Empathy

We all learn in nursing school the concept of having empathy for our patients.  It is one of the most widely taught codes of conduct in the nursing profession.  It is also one of the most forgotten skills when a nurse is burned out or overworked.  Showing empathy is a system that can be put into effect even when we are in low spirits. 

The American Heritage Dictionary defined empathy well by saying it is "the ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual or to comprehend and share another individual's emotional state.” By doing this, we allow the patient to feel understood and therefore better, no matter the circumstance. 

Whether or not you can do this, the patient has no idea.  In order for them to feel understood and for you to acquire rapport faster, you need to show empathy for them. This will result in a patient with more compliance, more patience, and overall improved mental wellbeing. 

Showing Empathy Through Facial Gestures and Body Language 

Today, COVID has put a huge damper on nurse-patient communication as nonverbal cues are mostly hidden behind a mask. What the patient can see are the eyes, the forehead, and part of the cheeks. These are your tools to generate a happier, more compliant patient through facial gestures. 

Make eye contact 

Be engaged into their eyes, even if just for a couple of seconds. During this moment, erase your lousy mood. Only peace comes through your eyes. This makes a world of difference for the patient as this alone will give them a sense of being tended to. As they say, the eyes are the windows to one's soul. 

Smile big 

 A fake, forced smile only activates a couple of cheek muscles whereas a "true smile is triggered by... the brain stem, causing muscles to lift and contract all over the face.” The patient will notice your eyes crinkle and your cheeks rise giving truth to you as a whole. 

Open your body, touch 

As you are working with your patient, trust and communication enhance when your body is open towards them.  When appropriate, have your body turned toward them, your shoulders open, drawing a line from your shoulders to each lateral edge of your patient. Now you are physically engaged. An added touch (as appropriate) can calm a person and show you are being empathetic. A simple touch on their shoulder can make a nurse-patient relationship soar. 

Showing Empathy Through Language and Speech 

There are many tactics that can be used in your speech when it comes to applying empathy.  Nurses know many ways, such as using open-ended questions and providing time for the patient to chat. We should use respectful words and avoid labels like "the diabetic" or "the fresh heart.” 

A lot of times, empathy can be used to fizzle out conflict. Listen to the patient and voice your understanding. If they are upset, let them explain and avoid blame. Offer to solve the issue. Ask, "What can I do for you?”  Now is their chance to tell you exactly what they need, providing insight and encouraging a calm environment.  

Even your tone of voice can be helpful. As you are saying your words, ending a sentence with an abrupt finish can indicate having a short temper or impatience. Try ending your sentence with a rising tone on the last word. This gives the impression you are talking to them with sincerity and patience. Think of a phrase you say often and say it with a short stop with the last word. Now say the same phrase, only with the rising tone at the end of the last word. It makes a big difference and is very handy if you are finding yourself being unintentionally grumpy with your patient.  

Be Mindful and Take that Extra Step 


Listening to your patient is one of the biggest ways to show empathy. Active listening involves paying attention to what is said. Sit next to them or be at their level. Verbalize back your understanding. Perhaps share a relatable story. Listening and allowing yourself to relate will help you better understand you patient and provide higher quality care for them. 

Be aware of the surroundings and the patient 

As nurses, we walk into a patient's room and immediately begin assessing.  Do they look comfortable? What is their body position? Facial expressions. Purposefully scan the room. Is anything out of place, out of reach. Are there any odd smells or sounds? All these thoughts are empathetic. 

Do not judge 

Judging will erase empathy.  Instead, put yourself in their shoes. How did this patient become addicted to heavy narcotics?  Be conscientious of the fact that usually the patient didn't mean to become addicted and, a lot of times, have gone through very rough experiences to get to this point. 

Involve others  

Use others to your patient's advantage. Family members and friends can be great contributors to building empathy for your patient. The interaction between them and the patient can show you more insight as to how the patient is feeling and how their experience is going. The presence of the visitor can allow the patient to relax and show more of their feelings. Bringing out their tucked-away feelings can introduce issues that may need your attention. It may seem like a pain but once the issue is resolved, the patient's situation is improved, and you and the patient have a stronger relationship. 

Take action 

Action speaks louder than words. Address your patient's concerns and carry out the tasks. Blend in other tools of empathy (such as the ones listed above) and the art of empathy can form. Keep your plans reasonable, add new tools when ready, and integrate them within your daily routine. These actions should become second nature as you continue actively showing empathy so don't overwork yourself to achieve this. Yes, this is basic Nursing 101 however, it is a primary part of empathy development. 

Showing empathy generates rapport quickly. The more you use these tactics, the more empathetic you will become. It will solve problems for you quicker, improve patient outcome, and make your job easier. The art of empathy can begin with just a smile. 


Definition of Empathy

The Hippocratic Post: What's in a smile?

Effect of Face Masks on Interpersonal Communication During the COVID-19 Pandemic

How to Show Empathy

SarahKixRN has 18 years experience as a BSN, RN and specializes in Nurse Writer, Experienced RN in PACU & ICU.

2 Articles   4 Posts

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Specializes in Hospice.

Excellent suggestions that can be easily implemented and can make a big difference in establishing a positive, therapeutic relationship with a patient!

SarahKixRN, BSN, RN

2 Articles; 4 Posts

Specializes in Nurse Writer, Experienced RN in PACU & ICU.

Thank you, yes, these are so helpful!

allnurses Guide

hppygr8ful, ASN, RN, EMT-I

4 Articles; 5,018 Posts

Specializes in Psych, Addictions, SOL (Student of Life).

IMHO Empathy is not something you can learn to do. It's something that some people have and others do not. Certainly you can learn to fake it. but people usually know when you are doing that.

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