In February, Asian elephants joined wolves, apes and some members of the crow family on the confirmed list of animals that demonstrate empathy – believed to be one of the most complex emotions. A recent study in Thailand showed that the gentle giants responded with reassuring acts and vocalizations when fellow elephants showed signs of distress or had been attacked. Once considered unique to humans, empathy has been observed at varying levels of the food chain.
If empathy is part of our animal nature, why does it get such a bad rap in business environments, where overt expressions of empathy can seem unprofessional and out of place? In healthcare PR specifically, where you work directly with patients and advocacy groups, empathy can broadcast that you are too “attached,” or that you are letting your feelings cloud your business judgment.
I believe these hesitations and stigmas regarding empathy are misguided. Far from tainting our perceptions, this emotional response sharpens our instincts and helps us navigate chaotic situations – so common in healthcare – where patients, providers and payers seem to be pursuing different agendas.
In fact, empathy is the keystone of an authentic, patient-centric PR program, whether it is branded or unbranded. But, not all of us are lucky enough to work on a disease state where we have personal knowledge of the patient journey (not that having a disease qualifies anyone as “lucky”). So what can you do in the absence of frontline experience to infuse empathy into your work?
From the office to the open plains, there is a place for empathy and understanding what value it can bring. Armed with fresh insights on elephants’ emotional range, conservationists are now hoping to rewrite their protocols to take better stock of the animals’ perspective. They believe this effort will help them address large scale human/elephant conflict issues.
For us humans, using an understanding of emotion to address conflict in healthcare – be it a personal struggle with a disease, a lack of communication between provider and patient, or the changes we face in light of health reform – can help elevate our game as communicators.