Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Saying the right words

The students have to say the right words to get credit for compassion.
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

In the title essay in her book The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison tells of working as a medical actor. That is, she would play the role of a patient with particular symptoms, a particular personality and a particular life history while medical students tried to discover the source of her problem. One of the criteria on which students were judged was the empathy they demonstrated for their pretend patients. As Jamison notes, it often came down to just saying the right words, or sometimes just not saying the wrong words.

Among the insights into empathy her essay delivers, Jamison writes this, "Their humility is a kind of compassion in its own right. Humility means they ask questions, and questions mean they get answers, and answers mean they get points on their checklist." Most of us have known doctors who could hardly ever be described as humble. They think they know what's wrong with us before we can finish describing our symptoms, and their attitude can sometimes prevent us from revealing what's really troubling us.

Jamison examines her subject of empathy not just from the point of view of a medical actor but also from that of a patient who has experienced both an abortion and heart surgery. She was in a position to give her own grades, not just to medical professionals but also to friends and family, and in particular her boyfriend. She was acutely aware when they measured up and when they didn't. So are we all whenever we suffer, mourn or just feel down in the dumps. We are sensitive to everything others say and do, aware whenever something helps and especially when something just makes it worse.

Yet as aware as we may be when we are the ones in pain, most of us are at a complete loss as to what to say and do when somebody else suffers. What can you say to someone who has just lost a spouse, a parent or a child? Does it help a surgery patient to describe your own surgeries? Do flowers really do any good? We don't even know when a visit from us might be welcomed by those who suffer, or would they prefer to be left alone?

We know when others fail our empathy exams, but that doesn't mean we know how to get passing grades on our own.

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