Communication = Empathy

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Benhard Shaw

Communication, particularly in science and technology, is not just the presenting information, data and evidence; it is presenting it in a way that is understandable. Communication is a two way street: It’s not just talking, it’s listening; it’s not just understanding, it’s being understood.  At the risk of stating the obvious, empathy is a essential part of effective communication.  Empathy is not sympathy. By attempting to figure out what is going on in the other person’s head in real time allows us to be better communicators. Although easier said then done, empathy is a skill that can be learned. In fact numerous medical schools and healthcare providers have taken steps to teach empathy to healthcare practitioners. Numerous studies have demonstrated that increased empathy among healthcare providers increase patient satisfaction, health outcomes, and compliance to doctors recommendations.

Award winning actor Alan Alda (most of us will remember him as Hawkeye in the television series M.A.S.H.) took is love of science and knowledge as an actor, and has been working to better science communication. He founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stoney Brook University, Alda Communication Training and even wrote a book on the subject. In his book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face,”he discusses the importance of empathy as a necessary part of communication. He also shares various tools and techniques, such as improvisation, to improve communication through the development of empathy.

In his book and through the Center for Communicating Science, Alda demonstrates how he utilizes numerous tools from this acting career that allow doctors and scientist to develop an empathetic response to others when communicating. Over the past several decades numerous medical schools, medical associations have been teaching the importance of practitioner empathy to improve patient outcomes.  It easily translates to all our lives including friends, co-workers, supervisors and employees, even parents and their children.

There can be quite a large gap between communication within the medical and STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) communities and the general public. Doctors, scientists and other experts may be very apt at relaying information to their peers and colleagues, but not so when relaying this information to the public (see The Art of Explanation, by Melanie L. Sisley).  Unfortunately, communicating science and medicine to the lay public still takes a back seat in most medical and STEM graduate programs. This is unfortunate in my opinion because these fields play a major role in all our society. If knowledge can`t be communicated in a way that it is understood, it won`t do us any good.

Need an empathy boot camp, try impov. However, there are many things that you can do to increase your empathy. When you meet someone, play closer attention to them. What colour are their eyes, what are they wearing, what color is their hair. When you are talking to others, be more mindful about them. Listen more, ask questions, and focus on things that you have in common, not things that are different. Another exercise Alan Alda suggests is that when you see people walking on the street, try to imagine what they are feeling. All these things have been demonstrated to increase our empathy. This comes with the added bonus, that as you display empathy, many people become more empathetic towards you. And finally, as Alan says in the accompanying video, we find people less annoying. And in this day and age, we can all use a little bit of that.

If you have any other tricks you use to build empathy, please leave a comment.