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Can Vet J. 2010 February; 51(2): 204–207.
PMCID: PMC2808290

Empathy and communication

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The terms sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably to denote pity for another. However, as anyone going through a trying period knows, expressions of pity may elicit quite opposite responses. One factor contributing to this paradoxical potential is the perceived motivation of the speaker. When Dr. Beaudelaire tells Ms. Gregory that he is so sorry that her animal’s highly malignant cancer is untreatable, she interprets this as a sincere offer of support and feels comforted by the veterinarian’s soothing words of consolation. But when he uses that same approach on Ms. Hornby, she screams, “I don’t want your pity!”

But to what motivation does Dr. Beaudelaire actually assign his responses?

“I see myself pretty much as the bearer of bad news that doesn’t intimately affect me,” he reports. “I don’t try to place myself in Ms. Gregory’s position because I consider trying to do that is unprofessional. Instead I see any attempt to understand what this news means to her as beyond my comprehension.”

According to the veterinarian, Ms. Gregory either agrees with this approach or she does not. There is nothing he can do about that, although naturally he is pleased when she agrees with him.

On the other hand, Ms. Hornby is offended by Dr. Beaudelaire’s response, which she considers standoffish and even patronizing. She expects him to understand the implications of his announcement for her and her animal and to guide her through the process of bringing the ordeal to an acceptable conclusion.

“I fully intended to do that,” declares the veterinarian after-the-fact. “But she didn’t give me a chance.”

Unfortunately, that is a common consequence of such breakdowns in communications. Once clients believe the clinician does not understand the seriousness of the event and its effect on them as well as the animal, it may be difficult for the practitioner to repair any damage done by that perception. This occurs because sympathy and empathy are most commonly expressed to those who are experiencing periods of emotional instability. During such times, even the most seemingly insignificant comments or actions of others may be blown out of proportion.

“I can’t believe it!” Ms. Hornby sobs to anyone who will listen. “Dr. Beaudelaire tells me the best dog I ever had is as good as dead and all he can say is that he’s sorry!”

Perhaps because most people are well aware of how difficult it can be to successfully traverse the emotional minefield triggered by sad events, few want to think objectively about the best way to respond to them beforehand. Instead they may adopt an “I’ll know how to make the right response when the time comes” stance as their guide. As a result, they may know very little about the role empathy plays in human (and nonhuman) behavior and how it contributes to quality client communication.

Unlike the bulk of the population, researchers interested in animal behavioral and the human-animal relationship have become increasingly intrigued by these emotions. In his latest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (Harmony Books, 2009), primatologist Frans de Waal discusses this research and its significance for human and nonhuman species. Because veterinarians in practice daily work with humans plus animals of all species, understanding the roots of empathy can provide insights regarding its practical clinical applications.

Everyone is aware of how infectious certain expressions can be. When we hear others laughing, it is often much easier to join in than to remain aloof. When others yawn, we may have to struggle mightily to avoid yawning, too. Similarly, when young apes put on their play faces or dogs assume the play stance, others of their own and sometimes other species mimic the response. One reason people are attracted to dog parks is because of how much pleasure they gain from watching dogs play with other dogs. de Waal convincingly argues that the roots for empathy lie in this predilection for mimicry.

Trained as we are in western cultures to view ourselves as independent thinkers or even in the case of some professions as superior thinkers, the idea of consciously, let alone subconsciously, wanting to do what everyone else is doing initially seems somehow wrong. However, if we look at this from a survival vantage point, we can appreciate how the ability to synchronize one’s thoughts and actions with others in the group could be an asset. Yawns and/or other expressions that get the entire troop, pack, or camp into a sleep mode would ensure that some youngster was not getting into trouble while the adults slept, or that the activities of a non-sleeper would attract a predator when the rest of the group was defenseless. Mood contagion also would ensure that everyone was on the same page relative to keeping tabs on a potential or actual predator when the group was out and about.

In contemporary life, humans mimic the language, body-language, and even the clothing and hairstyles of those viewed as role models in an effort to gain the benefits conferred by a perceived alliance with that person.

“Does this mean that, if my clients view me as a role model, they’ll mimic me?’ asks Dr. Beaudelaire.

Yes, provided they view his expressions or actions as appropriate given their situation. As we have seen, expressions of sympathy (or any other emotion) that the client perceives as insincere may be ignored or trigger what the role model considers an inappropriate response. When Ms. Hornby does not receive what she considered heartfelt input from Dr. Beaudelaire regarding her options, she feels abandoned and lashes out at him. Similarly, clients who believe that their veterinarian is making fun of a problem they see as quite serious or, the opposite, that the clinician is making a big problem out of something they view as minor, may find their inability to accept the response of someone they consider a role model distressing. In all of these cases, the clients expect the veterinarian to sympathize, to be in synchrony with them.

Another function of empathy that can backfire for clinicians is its role in teaching and learning. Like most animal species, humans evolved to teach by example and learn by mimicking. Learners naturally watch those they perceive as role models for cues regarding how to accomplish various tasks. This behavior is so deeply entrenched that parents sitting in the audience at the school play may find themselves silently mouthing their child’s lines when the budding thespian recites them. Coaches may pass imaginary balls or pivot as they watch their teams play.

But this is not the way we teach in western cultures. Even with the addition of his high-tech training aides in his examination rooms, Dr. Beaudelaire remains a talking head of the “Do as I say, not as I do” school. Although he may feel sorry that his client’s arthritis might make medicating the rambunctious cat difficult, he lacks the empathy that would cause him to demonstrate how to do this.

“Well, that may be true for Dr. Beaudelaire, but it’s most certainly not true for me!” hotly counters Dr. Mathias. “I do identify with my clients and I do want to help them. But I don’t have time to learn touchy-feely responses for every situation I encounter in practice.”

This is a valid concern, and it brings up the difference between pseudo-empathy and true empathy. Empathy is not about presenting carefully choreographed words of support or providing clients with mechanical demonstrations about how to accomplish various animal-related tasks properly. Such responses constitute pseudo-empathetic ones. Veterinarians who give all clients who have just euthanized an animal the same canned Rainbow Bridge response fall into this category, as do those who supply their clients with handouts without explanation of the material in those handouts. While some clients may accept this as the best that their veterinarian can do, others will feel offended by what they see as a less than sincere offering.

True empathy is based on what researchers refer to as “embodied” cognition. It is based on paying attention to and learning as much from clients as we expect them to pay attention to and learn from us. Literature and the conventional wisdom are filled with examples of the relationship between empathy, learning, and role models. Adages that caution us to walk in another’s shoes or beware throwing stones remind us that comments which result from a lack of empathy gain us little respect from others. Other sayings remind us to lead by example, to instill in others the wherewithal to carry on in our absence.

While some might long for an “empathy pill” that would spare them the need to see and accept the situation as their clients see it and respond accordingly, becoming sensitized to nonverbal forms of communication and being willing to put ourselves in another’s place has much to offer those who make the effort. Not only do these skills enhance practitioners’ ability to communicate effectively with clients, they enhance communication with everyone.


Use of this article is limited to a single copy for personal study. Anyone interested in obtaining reprints should contact the CVMA office ( gro.vmca-amvc@nothguorbh) for additional copies or permission to use this material elsewhere.

Articles from The Canadian Veterinary Journal are provided here courtesy of Canadian Veterinary Medical Association