Can empathy be taught?

On May 29th, I spoke to the leaders at Adventist HealthCare at our semiannual Mission in Motion conference where patient experience was the theme of the day. As part of the plenary session I explained to our leaders why I am so passionate about the work of improving patient experience.

One of the reasons, I explained, was that last year, we touched nearly 80% of our community within 1-degree of separation. By one degree of separation, I am assuming that each employee and each patient has at least, on average, one other member of their household. For example, if we treated a mother, her experience in our care would have influence on her whole family. Imagine if we demonstrated kindness and compassion in a way that exceeded the patient’s expectations. If our team and our patients take those behaviors home, imagine the multiplier effect it could have of people leading by an example of deep kindness.the war for kindness

If you attended the Mission in Motion conference, you would promptly leave the plenary for a mandatory breakout session on selecting the right employees for the job. The session educated attendees on certain behaviors, like empathy, which lead to kindness and compassion that can’t be taught. If leaders do not follow a good process for hiring, it may hurt the whole group. This conventional wisdom is present in the literature around excellent service organizations, like the Ritz-Carlton, that deploy a rigorous hiring process to prevent “bad apples” from entering the bunch.

Enter Stanford University psychologist Jamil Zaki, who presents a compelling challenge to the notion that empathy is not a learned trait. In his recently published book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, Zaki describes how his work and research can help people become more empathetic.

Zaki describes his childhood living in parallel worlds after his parents divorced. He described this experience as an “empathy gym,” noticing how two people could have completely different and yet totally valid views of life. He has created a similar type of course at Stanford, sending students to various exercises and experiential learning environments to build their empathy muscles. While the work is rigorous and difficult, he has shown results.

Further, Zaki shows his work in a way that builds trust in the research. At the end of the book, he takes the reader through each study mentioned, chapter by chapter, and rates the quality of the research on a 5-point scale. While some of the research is yet to be validated, it is certainly interesting, controversial at times, and quite progressive.

The initial set up of the book is quite dense, describing several research studies, as well as a general orientation to historical notions on empathy. It was worth the dense crash course to get to the stories and real world examples of building empathy. Zaki takes us through experiments in using literature to stop recidivism, truly understanding “compassion fatigue” in hospitals, and positive and negative impacts of technology on empathy.

The War for Kindness has many implications. It is a helpful roadmap for how we can be more kind, compassionate, and empathetic as a society. It has challenged my thinking on hiring in health care. While I still strongly believe that systems and processes help protect the team and enhance service, I now believe that a motivated candidate can be taught how to empathize. I also believe that we must coach motivated caregivers to have empathy in a way that does not cause burnout or eventually result in emotional numbness towards patients.

I have already bought copies of this book to give away to friends and colleagues, because it is powerful, hopeful, and challenges assumptions about how we can repair our seemingly broken world. It is surely worth the read not only if you lead people, but if you are interested in making society a better place (this should be everyone!).

KEY TAKEWAY: Can empathy be taught? Jamil Zaki in The War for Kindness argues that it can be. The implications in healthcare mean that our team members would benefit from a culture that has built in systems to train people on demonstrating empathetic concern for patients. This is a must-read book.


The War for Kindness is available for purchase on Amazon for $27.00 (does not include Prime discount).