Empathy: What’s it good for?

By Shari Eberts

"What is the one thing you want my students to take away from this presentation?" the teacher asked the panel over Zoom. The three of us, all people with hearing loss, were addressing a graduate school class on aural rehabilitation. To me, the answer was clear: empathy. 

If hearing care professionals (HCPs) of any ilk – audiologist, speech language pathologist, hearing instrument specialist – could put themselves in their patient’s shoes, person-centered care (PCC) would be much easier. 

In fact, empathy is often listed as one of the foundational elements of PCC and it’s connected to many of the others, including active listening, understanding individual needs and preferences, and shared decision-making.

So what is empathy? 

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” In the context of hearing care, empathy helps you imagine how you would like to be treated if you or someone you loved had hearing loss. 

For example, if you had hearing loss, you would want your HCP to: 

1. Ask you important questions and listen to the answers

This would include both the practical content of the answer – "I have trouble hearing at the dinner table with my family" – and the underlying emotional message – "I regularly feel isolated from the people who are most important to me." 

PCC requires focusing the treatment on the situations that are most important to the client and developing creative solutions to solve communication problems. Hearing aids may not be enough to regain the intimacy of family dinner but adding in assistive technologies such as remote mics or speech-to-text apps could supply the extra element that allows the person to re-engage. 

2. Value your lived experience

Nobody knows more about the nature of their hearing loss than the person themselves. Only they can truly assess the listening effort they expend in loud places or the ease (or not) at which they maneuver through an airport or a shopping expedition. Listen to their experiences – the good and the bad – so you can help them navigate more successfully. 

Including the family in PCC is also critical. Family is often the first to notice how much conversation the person with hearing loss is missing or whether the TV volume has reached new heights. Even if they can hear, the family has lived experience with hearing loss too. 

3. Acknowledge your attitudes about hearing loss 

There is much more to adjusting to hearing loss than adopting new technologies. Feelings of sadness and loss are common as we wonder if life will ever be the same. We miss the intimacy of hushed conversation with loved ones and the independence of communicating easily when out and about. Our self-image may also change as we battle societal stigma that still surrounds hearing loss. Or we may be battling our own internal negative self-talk.

How to develop empathy for your clients

We are all born with the capacity for empathy, but it can also be honed with practice. One important way to develop increased empathy for your patients is to learn more about the lived hearing loss experience. Here are a few suggestions for doing just that. 

  • Conduct a survey of your clients that focuses on their emotional reactions to their hearing loss, both at the start and at later points in their hearing loss journey.
  • Invite people with hearing loss to share their stories with your team or your students. It’s a win-win as it allows clients to develop more empathy for you as well. 
  • Watch films about the lived hearing loss experience like We Hear You, read books about it like Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss or The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss, and browse the Ida Institute’s ethnographic video library Remember that the Deaf experience portrayed in mainstream films like Sound of Metal and CODA is likely very different to those of your patients. 
  • Join a local peer support group for people with hearing loss or create one yourself. Pay attention to the meeting topics and the nature of the questions. You will soon have more appreciation for the issues that are most important to your clients. 

To practice PCC in your clinic, be sure to put empathy at the top of the list. 

The Ida Institute has free, 30-minute online courses on each of the PCC elements, including empathy. Click here to find out more.

Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a popular blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of We Hear You, an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss, (co-authored with Gael Hannan) is the ultimate survival guide to living well with hearing loss. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with Shari: Blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter