Can compassion be taught?

It’s a question asked by parents, educators and employers, by anyone who watches or reads the news, listens to school bus taunts, or pays attention to politics. But more importantly, it’s a poignant query from patients caught up in our nation’s health care system — places that often seem to have lost the sense of heart that’s so desperately needed.

So when so many people believe we are largely “who we are” at birth — and when the world seems stained by rampant incivility, even in settings that are supposed to offer care — how can we be so bold as to suggest that compassion and empathy can be learned?

Because, remarkably, it can. We can all learn to be better versions of ourselves quite on purpose. Nursing students do it every day.

Now, it’s true that those who join our field are often blessed with ample heart and ability to empathize. But even those with compassionate prowess can learn lessons to amplify their care.

The rest of us, who are quite human as we hurry, judge, become frustrated and grow tense, can learn too. Every single one of us — with a new year before us most especially — can benefit from learning to take care.

That throwaway phrase we so often utter — “take care” — can truly mean something, if you let it. Consider this essay your invitation to nursing school for a day.

At the University of Virginia, our nascent Compassionate Care and Empathic Leadership Initiative — a lengthy, fancy name for a simple, purposeful way to teach kindness, usher resilience and nurture compassion — is seeding change in fertile ground. An all-volunteer army of more than 70 nurses, physicians, chaplains, students and others are gathering monthly to consider meaningful, relevant ways to develop our personal reservoirs of compassion, noting simple, small ways we can better care for our patients, one another and ourselves.

These are concrete ways that help us to be more compassionate caregivers — ideas that could, in this season, be spread not with high-minded self-righteousness but rather with quiet kindness and empathy.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is to cultivate an ability to listen to others. Not planning on what you’ll say next while another person is talking, but really hearing what is being said, taking the time to consider it before responding. And sometimes, taking what someone says and sitting with it, quietly, and thoughtfully, and even without response.

A close second lesson we espouse is the idea of being fully present — fully entrenched in the right here, right now, not tippy-tapping on your iPhone while someone talks.

Equally important is remembering to be respectful to colleagues, and to oneself.  To look people in the eye. To say please, and thank you. And, when the going gets tough — as it often does for so many of us in healthcare — to remember to breathe deeply, take a moment or two to collect ourselves, and to do our best each and every time we encounter another person.

In the emergency room at UVa Medical Center, the “pause” — a 45-second moment of silence that many practitioners here have self-determined to institute, based on our compassionate care workshops — enables them to transform a challenging trauma case, a death, into a moment marked by respect and dignity.

Hospital deaths may be ugly and raw — no one chooses to go this way — but it’s nurses who orchestrate death to meet patient and family needs. So while it’s still sad, and we still grieve, there is a difference: We take the time to reflect before moving onto the next patient, rather than letting the rage, grief and sadness cloud our judgment. There is a way to make even something stark as death seem beautiful, even dignified.

How many times, and in how many sad, difficult or maddening situations, would you have been a better version of yourself if you just counted slowly, with purposeful breath, from one to twenty before moving on?

These may be lessons from nursing school — but they’re also for life. And when nurses lead, others follow. These simple lessons apply in so many settings — at home, in the office, at the hospital and clinic. We can change patient experiences — making difficult things less so, being present when there are painful, uncomfortable situations — and one another by purposefully taking care.

I urge you to inject compassion in everything you do — when you drive, when you speak with your children, when you interact with coworkers and strangers. I wish you eyeball-to-eyeball conversations, the ability to listen deeply and be present, and hope you’ll take a few lessons from a nurse.

And take care. I really mean that.


Dorrie K. Fontaine is dean of the University of Virginia School of Nursing.






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