We need to be kind

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 19:18

The COVID 19 pandemic has highlighted to me, more than anything else, how “the golden rule” has been eroded in a time where we need it the most.

Our public health experts have told us that many of the actions they have urged us to take to stay safe during the pandemic, including wearing masks, social distancing, and eventually being vaccinated, are just as much about protecting others as they are about protecting ourselves. If we all were to do those things, we could successfully limit the spread.

But something in our current culture is out of balance. It might be an overemphasis or misunderstanding of individualism, rudeness, skepticism of science and logic, or perhaps believing in conspiracy theories (or many other trends). These elements and others have eroded our kindness, compassion, and the understanding that we share this earth with others. More and more we live in our own headspace and are not considering the needs of our neighbors and those around us.

We all have work to do in this area, and I will be the first to admit that I need to do this work too.

But something from the last week gave me hope. It showed me that examples of how each of us should behave are still out there, and that while we are lost, we can still find our way back.

That inspiration came from a 13-year old boy named Brayden Harrington from New Hampshire. He inspired me with his courage to speak at the Democratic National Convention last week.

Here is Brayden’s speech:

The story of Vice President Biden meeting Brayden Harrington dates back to February 7th. Recently, I saw the video of that meeting on twitter.

Take a look:

Let’s put aside for just a moment that our country is in the middle of a bitterly divisive election. And let’s put aside the fact that one of the subjects of this post is Vice President Joe Biden who is one of the two candidates running for President. If you are an entrenched skeptic, I ask you to put aside your doubts about the genuineness of the interaction too.

I ask you to do this for just a moment, because what we can learn from these two men should not be at all political.

Brayden is a boy with his whole life in front of him. But, he has a disability, and one that makes his life different than most of ours. His disability, a stutter, is something he shares in common with Vice President Biden. Biden worked hard and overcame his stutter, and this young man wants to do the same and took inspiration from Biden.

Biden didn’t have to spend time with Brayden at all. He could have shook his hand, given him an “atta boy,” at their interaction in New Hampshire, and kept going about his day.

But he didn’t do that.

Instead he spent the time with Brayden. Gave him encouragement, which clearly helped him. All of a sudden an inspirational figure, who was a stranger, became a friend and a supporter for Brayden.

The more I have seen the events of the last 166 days unfold, the more I worry about the world my now 4-month old son and other members of his generation will inherit from us. Will that be a world of compassion or a world of anger and self-centeredness?

The more I read and hear, the more I believe that we are all leaders in answering this pivotal question. In these times, we are all just a cell-phone camera capture away from going viral; what was once reserved for celebrities, politicians, and athletes now allows basically anybody to become overnight viral sensations.

We need more moments of compassion like this one to go viral and spend less time on content that may just embarrass somebody else. We need more moments of connection, of support, and of encouragement. In this way, we are all leaders and are all being called to lead during a dark time in our country and the world. Leaders live by example. How can you be more compassionate, more kind, and more understanding to strangers? How can we disagree with civility? What world are we leaving for our children? How could we do better?

KEY TAKEAWAY: We are all leaders in curing the epidemic of anger, cruelty, and selfishness. We can learn from the story of Brayden Harrington and Vice President Biden that we are all leaders in making the world a more compassionate place.

This post was inspired by Brayden Harrington and the book The War for Kindness by Jamil Zaki.

Empathy in action

Several months ago, I ran across this emotional video about the power of empathy and leadership in health care:

I often share this video and Jap’s story for several reasons. His positive attitude, coupled with his thoughts of wanting to do more with his life are inspiring. While his injury took away the use of his legs, it gave him a fresh perspective and new motivation in his life.

From a health care delivery standpoint, Jap’s story teaches us that we must do more for our caregivers and that anyone in the hospital can lead to make a patient’s experience better.

As you watched the video, did you notice what happened when Jap woke up from his accident? The first thing he did was scream out. But, nobody came to his aid. He was on the “diving accident floor” in the hospital, and according to the nurses, everyone on that floor screams after they regain consciousness. To the nurses, every scream was, “just another day at the office.” To Jap though, it was one of the scariest and worst moments of his life, and he was alone.

In my current role, one of my main responsibilities is to work on this very issue. Clinicians can become used to or numb to other people’s suffering. It is not because our bedside caregivers are bad people or doing something wrong, it is simply because of the nature of the work. Part of the role of patient experience is to create systems to remind caregivers that, for the patient, this is not just, “another day at the office.” Part of this work is done by creating mechanisms to constantly remind caregivers that our patients do not come to work in a hospital and the days they are here are unique to them. We must help caregivers connect to the fundamental emotions of most patients: That they are scared, stressed and confused.

The other lesson Jap teaches us is that anyone can lead. Carlos, Jap’s nurse in the ICU, not only goes to him when he screams, but instructs the other nurses how to comfort Jap. Carlos was behaving in a way that creates positive, peer-to-peer accountability. Carlos authorized himself to help the entire team care for Jap in his hour of need. Carlos took it upon himself to provide the reminder that this was a unique day in Jap’s life and he will need help to get through it. Carlos embodied how, in hospitals especially, patients expect more than just us treating a disease or an injury; they expect to be treated like people.

This powerful video shares these lessons elegantly and they apply to any work that we do interfacing with other people.

Thank you for sharing your story, Jap.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Patient experience is about reminding people to see care through the eyes of the patient and to treat their emotions, not just their physical condition. Anyone can lead in patient experience, it is up to leaders to create mechanisms for peer-to-peer coaching and accountability. 

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).