Breaking the Ice on Talking About Empathy

I’ve been teaching a lot on empathy lately and I’ve learned a really great icebreaker to pave the way into the conversation on connecting with others in their pain and suffering. This is important because just jumping into talking about pain and suffering isn’t necessarily a good way to bring people into a meaningful dialogue on the subject.  However, taking them on a own journey, just briefly, into their own vulnerability I have found lends to a much more productive class.

The exercise is a simple one. I have everyone take out their phones and bring up a picture of someone who is very important to them. I then have them turn turn to their neighbor, introduce themselves, and tell them about their special person on their phone: who they are and why they mean so much to them.

They love this part. Usually after a couple of minutes I have to reign them all in because they get into some really great conversations about the people they love with their neighbor.

Once we are all back together in a big group, I ask the question: “What if today you got a phone call, and the person you brought up on your phone was in an accident, or was just diagnosed with a life threatening disease?  This is the situation that many of our patients and families have found themselves.”

From here, the tone is set and conversation is framed in a way that allows us to begin to discuss empathy meaningfully because they have already personally connected with feelings of loss and grief. Without this personal, experiential connection, I find even talking about empathy can be hallow and meaningless.

If you are wanting to talk with your team about empathy, this is an effective and simple exercise to frame the conversation and help inspire them in compassionate and empathetic interactions with their patients.




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