What is empathy, really? – a Q&A with Dr. Sharon Clark, Advanced Practice Leader, CAPA

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By Natalie Jarvis

A clinical psychologist, Dr. Sharon Clark and her colleagues in Mental Health and Addictions are transforming the way mental health care is delivered at the IWK – through the Choice and Partnership Approach (CAPA.)

This year, the MHA team celebrates ten years since beginning that journey.

So, what does CAPA have to do with empathy? The short answer is everything, really. The two are inherently connected.

Empathy is not only the theme of Mental Health Week, but a practice that mental health care professionals are refining every day.

Dr. Clark shares her thoughts on practicing empathy below. She also recommends a talk by Brené Brown, which is illustrated beautifully in this animated short-film.

What does “empathy” mean, in your words?

To me, empathy is rooted in the desire to understand another person’s experience. It’s recognizing that we can never truly understand someone else’s experience, but we can be curious and want to know more about what it’s like to be them and how they experience the world.

I think empathy and curiosity are closely linked. If I am curious, I want to know what’s truly important to you, and that curiosity makes our time together more valuable for you. This also means you’re more likely to make connections between therapy and your lived experiences, and maybe, find more value in coming to appointments and continuing that work outside the treatment space.

What is CAPA all about? How does empathy tie-in?                   

CAPA is founded on shared decision making and collaboration with clients and families. With this approach, we see clients and families as the experts on their lives. We dive into their knowledge of their current situation and set goals together that align with what they want and is what is meaningful to them.

We can’t do any of this without empathy, or a desire to see things through their eyes.

How does the delivery of health care change through an empathic lens?

Traditionally, clinicians are trained to focus on managing symptoms. Symptoms lead to a diagnosis that typically leads you to the evidence-based treatment for that problem or disorder.

We absolutely need to know about evidence-based treatments and understand what makes them work well. Our role as clinicians is to be able to explain to youth and families what treatment involves so that they can make an informed decision about whether that direction for care is going to provide them with the kind of change they’re looking for. That’s aligned with what they care about.

Empathy helps us to connect to what’s most important to clients so they can make these kinds of informed choices.

What steps can clinicians take to build their empathy-based skills?

We need to be aware of our own values and biases and be able to set them aside to step into true empathy – to understand the experiences of others, as best we can.

The other thing is to be open to feedback – I think that’s hugely important. I might say to somebody “we’re going to draw this together, but you’re the expert on your life. When or if I get it wrong, tell me, because I want to get it right.” I think it’s our job, to understand what it’s like to be them, so that when we reach a decision together about their care, they’re making a very informed decision. This is just as important at the first appointment as it is in all appointments across treatment.

How do you know, as a clinician, if you’re getting it right?

Empathy is expressed by what we say and what we do. All members of our team can show empathy for families. When our booking and registration clerk helps a family find an appointment time that works better for them, that’s showing empathy for that family’s experience.

Empathy shows up when we listen without interrupting and communicate either in words or in actions that we are interested and want to understand.

When a client has the experience that the clinician they are working with is focused on understanding them, and their experience – those are signs that we are joining with them in their treatment journey.