The Power of Empathy

Maureen Leif, President, Grays Peak Strategies


I sat with my mom as her Dr. came into to explain how the biopsy was going to go. I anticipated that the Dr. would talk quick and we would be confused or maybe even overwhelmed, and that if we had any questions we would have to ask quick. He shook our hands, and to my surprise he talked clearly, slowly and used normal language. He stopped several times and asked if we had questions. What surprised me the most was that he was empathetic and caring. He cared about us as people. He has done this procedure thousands of times and yet he made us feel like this was the most important appointment he had. As I left, I was reminded that how Dr. Mencini treated my family today was how we should treat our parents involved with the child support and court systems.

The child support system is full of acronyms and legalese language that can be confusing and overwhelming to parents. Like the medical field was to my family, we are discussing stressful and life altering events and facts that can’t really be changed. Child support impacts, children, money, relationships, and employment. These are often of the biggest stressors in life. Empathy means listening, being open, and displaying understanding. We may not realize it, but we can make a lasting impact and difference on the outcome of a case by treating our child support clients with empathy.

There are some easy ways that child support and court personnel can display empathy. Have you ever been in an appointment where they spend more time looking at their computer than looking into your eyes? How does it make you feel? In the medical field, “Many studies have documented lower patient satisfaction when physicians spend more time looking at the computer and performing clerical tasks,” Dr. Susan Hingle, a professor of internal medicine at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine wrote[1]. So as long as the Dr. is good at what they do, does it matter how the patient feels? Yes, “Patient satisfaction can affect health outcomes via adherence to the care plan”[i].  This same analogy can be used in what we do with working with parents at the courts and at child support offices. If the parties that we work with feel valued, understood, and that they system is fair they will be more likely to comply with the orders. When they comply with orders, they not only benefit, but so do the children in our caseloads.

It is important to train our staff on empathy. It is just as important to customer service, as how to use the computer system. In a recent training on customer service that we put on we not only trained the child support workers on how to exhibit empathy to the clients, but also to each other. It is important for self-care and job satisfaction when we all treat each other with empathy and understanding.

There are other easy ways to increase empathy into our work. Listening sounds easy but it can truly be an art. Try to be present and make eye contact. Active listening means trying to validate someone’s perspective during a conversation. Make a human connection with the person, ask them a personal question and let them know you see them as a person and not a case number. It is also important to examine our own attitudes. Our work is hard, and sometimes emotionally taxing. Just know that when you make that effort you are impacting families in a real concrete way. I was reminded of this the hard way - My mom’s diagnosis turned out to be breast cancer. Although we are frightened and overwhelmed, we also feel like we are cared for and that Dr. Menicini is going to be there for us during the fight ahead. This emotional experience has reminded me that it is not cutting edge technology or anything fancy that matters, at the heart of it, it is human connection and empathy for your fellow man.

[1] Bruce Japsen, “For Every Hour with Patients Doctors Spend Two Record Keeping” (2016, September 6)