Little scientific research exists on the role of empathy in effective interactions between patients and health care providers, but most people probably think they can spot empathy when they hear it. A new study from University of Florida researchers and their colleagues looks at the language of empathy and suggests that it involves a word you might not expect to hear: “I.”
The researchers analyzed the communications of 343 nursing students who interacted with a virtual patient named “Tina Jones.” The students interviewed Tina to get her medical history, and they also noted when they thought they were verbally expressing empathy toward Tina.
When examining the linguistic patterns, the researchers found responses that included only the word “you” were less effective at showing empathy than responses that included both “I” and “you.” While responses that contained “you” focused on the patient, they did not give a sense that the student understood the patient’s thoughts and feelings. The responses that contained “I” and “you” seemed more empathetic because they indicated a two-way exchange.
During the virtual conversations, Tina revealed to the students that she was in pain. When the students replied, “Thank you so much, Mrs. Jones, for sharing the information,” the response, while polite, did not show the students understood the impact of the pain. However, students who said, “I am sorry you are in pain, we are going to work on getting that under control for you,” showed they heard the medical information and also conveyed a sense of empathy.
So, if you are seeking empathy from your health care provider, listen for phrases that include an “I” or two.