How to Show Empathy as an Occupational Therapist

A mid adult woman touches her shoulder as she discusses pain or an injury with a female physical therapist. The patient is sitting on an exam table with crutches leaning against the table.

Occupational therapists help people overcome physical and mental problems that are the result of disability, injury, aging or illness.

Most successful OTs exhibit a number of shared professional traits including patience, enthusiasm, excellent interpersonal and communication skills, an interest in working with people, and being goal-oriented.

However, “goal-oriented” can sometimes mean an OT becomes so focused on the finish line with a patient, that he or she forgets that no two are alike. Some patients catch on quickly and work hard to overcome their issue, while others may balk at doing the work needed to improve their physical or mental condition. This is where understanding and empathy need to come into play for an OT to be truly successful.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is understanding someone else’s experience so much that you can imagine having their experience yourself. It’s the foundation for kindness and understanding and helps in professional and personal relationships to understand the needs, experiences, and feelings of the other person.

For an OT, empathy is how you can perceive and intellectually understand the way someone else feels. Often called “cognitive empathy” this is more like a skill than emotional empathy and takes time to cultivate. Cognitive empathy involves time to learn how to identify certain emotions and behaviors.

How to Practice Empathy as an OT

Start Each Therapy Session by Making Eye Contact

This sounds simple – but it’s essential for establishing a connection. Yet the use of electronic medical records have made this increasingly difficult. Be sure to look up when asking questions. And when you look down at the computer, continue commenting to show that you’re not distracted. Or better yet, explain why you’re using the computer during their visit. Do what you can to put your patient at ease.

Listen, but also Share

Empathy is not just about feeling for others but also about showing ourselves to others. Trusting someone with your genuine thoughts is crucial to building a healthy and empathetic relationship with someone else. Empathy is fantastic because it is not just a one-way street. It can go both ways.

Let your Patient Know you’re Listening

Your patient is likely feeling tense – most are when they’re in a medical situation. Start by asking how they’ve been since your last session. Engaging in non-clinical small talk is an excellent way to help your patient feel more comfortable – and they’ll be more apt to let you know if anything has changed regarding their condition since you last saw them. Give a nod or paraphrase what you’ve heard them saying to demonstrate that you hear and understand them.

Be Curious

Empathetic people are those who are curious about the people around them. This means going beyond checking their charts to see what’s impacting their life. A sick mother? An impending move? Not only will your patient feel connected when you remember to ask them about this next time, but the more you know about their life, the easier it is to feel empathy.

Ready to advance your healthcare career?

Malone Healthcare has the proven network and experience to help you find the perfect fit. Contact us today and let’s get started on finding the right position that reflects your skills.