Empathy and Communication

15 09 2011

The movie Contagion opened last weekend. After the movie’s release, the NY Times published an article discussing the way the pandemic is portrayed in the movie. The last paragraph cited an essay by Anne Schuchat,the Chief Head Officer in CDC’s 2009 pandemic influenza. She was a scientific spokesperson for the agency. I can’t really say more about the movie, other than it is Hollywood, and many elements have been exaggerated for drama. It was Schuchat’s essay what caused an impression. In it she “reflects on her personal experiences” during those pandemics.

At the end of the essay Schuchat describes what is needed to communicate risk in a time of uncertainty like that of the H1N1 influenza. She says:

“Communicating in the face of much uncertainty requires different strategies. It also turns out that people do not generally panic when they hear bad news. They may not even process the news at all–but there are some ways that you can communicate risks that have a better chance of getting through when a listener is very concerned. Key components of risk communication are expressing empathy, acknowledging uncertainty, and being honest and transparent. How different it was in my grandmother’s day, when withholding of information and promising perfect outcomes were the norm.”

This got me thinking. Last class, we were supposed to explain how we’d use what we’ve learned in our job as risk communicators. Knowing what I know, I would not be the right person for that job. While I would not have a problem being honest, transparent or acknowledging uncertainty, I may fall short on the empathy part. I am too blunt and practical. You can ask my friends about this, and they’ll confirm that you do not want me delivering bad news. It usually goes like this: “Hey, do you remember BlahBlah? Well, he’s insert tragedy of choice here.”  It is not my fault. I swear it runs in the family.

So far, the reading materials have focused largely on the audience. I hope in the future we cover what it takes for a person to be a successful risk communicator, for example, knowing which words to use, or how to express empathy. From what I gather, it’s a Goldielocks thing: One can’t be too emotional, nor too detached. It has to be just right.




One response

29 09 2011

During a course I took on grief back at school (psychology school, that is), the instructor told us a very simple rule:

“If you are not crying, but the patient is, you’re too far. If you’re crying, and he’s not, you’re too close. If he’s crying, and you are, then you got it”.

I suppose this is more or less the same case here. If you’re not cappable of feeling the angst, the grief, the fear… hold it a second and think about that you’re gonna say, why, to whom, and how would you or someone you care would feel.
And if you’re feeling miserable and about to break into tears, or like you wish to scream to the havens, but haven’t even given the information to the affected party, take a breath and calm down a little.

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