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Elephants Never Forget…Empathy

Elephants Never Forget…Empathy

June 6, 2014 0 Comments

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?

  • Cultivate Curiosity – Scratch the Surface. Check out websites, relevant Facebook pages and influencers on Twitter. You are likely just a few clicks away from some powerful patient testimony about what it’s like to live with a particular disease or condition. Listen, read and learn.
  • Put Skin in the Game. Even a $20 donation will increase your sense of commitment to serving those patients. It will also add your name to email lists with newsletters delivering more in-depth insights and breaking news.
  • Walk the Walk – Listen Hard. Organize a fundraising team for a run or a walk. Come early to hear patients and advocates speak passionately about their experience, detailing the initiatives and research needed which donations support. Check out booths and sponsors and, most importantly, talk to the people around you! Ask open-ended questions to start a conversation, like “how do you like the walk this year?” or “how did you get involved in the walk?” Personal engagement is contagious. The encounter could trigger your desire to help and inspire a more meaningful PR program.
  • Open Up – Embrace the Cause. Volunteering at a local chapter requires a level of personal commitment that not everyone can make. In agency speak: this is not “billable time.” It’s your time – in the evenings or weekends. Local events need PR skills: speech writing, party planning, auction item solicitation, goodie bag stuffing, program copy, etc. Helping with a gala will usually secure free admission (between $500-$2,500/seat) and the experience is priceless. Your new advocacy and volunteer teammates may be open to staying connected beyond the event, forging bonds you can call on again and again informally. (Just one caveat: don’t start what you can’t finish. Be realistic with yourself and what will work with your life.)
  • Be Inspired to Action! Authentic programs that deliver a unique value to a patient community are the only way a brand can truly join that community. When the enterprise goes beyond the Rx sale, it is demonstrating empathy rather than self-interest. This spirit may be the key to success.

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.

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