As we begin a new year, we look forward to a fresh start. The cyclic nature of academic life allows for a “do-over” at the start of every semester. This year, however, is different. We survived over 9 months of a global pandemic and we are tired, as it is not over yet. We are hopeful for equitable distribution of an effective vaccine but understand we have not quite rounded the corner toward a return to our campuses and communities. Further, we have so much work to do in dismantling structural racism within our institutions and eliminating health care disparities. But where do we begin with such a daunting task? I suggest it begins with me, with you, with each of us.
When our students begin their program of study with a course in fundamentals of nursing practice, they learn about the primacy of person-centered care and the use of empathy in therapeutic communication. “Empathy is to understand, feel, and share what someone else feels, with self-other differentiation” (Håkansson Eklund & Summer Meranius, 2020, p. 7). Is empathy a concept we teach or a skill we practice with our colleagues, our students, our friends and families?
Krznaric (2012) identified six habits of highly empathic people. Habit 1 is to cultivate curiosity about strangers. It's important to recognize that our colleagues and students have different backgrounds and perspectives. Instead of homogenizing nursing practice as a monolithic entity, how can we embrace and celebrate difference as we create the next generation of caregivers? In working with community agencies, are we listening to and understanding their needs? Or are we merely negotiating placements for our students? How do we authentically partner to improve the health of communities as well as the clinical experiences for our students?
Habit 2 is to challenge prejudices and discover commonalities. As a first step, implicit bias training may be beneficial to create awareness of unintentional biases you may hold. Harvard University's Project Implicit (2011) offers assessments in a variety of social categories, including disability, skin tone, weapons, age, religion, gender, sexuality, transgender, and race. Moving beyond awareness requires engaging with individuals from groups for which you may hold bias. It involves engaging in conversation and seeking to understand rather than judging based on stereotypes or preconceived ideas.
Habit 3 suggests trying another person's life. In our current virtual world, this might involve engaging with others through streamed church services or attending webinars to broaden your understanding. When we are able to congregate and interact again in the future, it might mean an immersion experience in a neighboring community or culture.
Habit 4 is to listen hard and open up. Listening requires presence and a genuine interest in what another person is saying. It requires reflection and listening to understand, not waiting to respond. How often do we provide our colleagues and students with presence and understanding? Opening up requires that we share our own vulnerabilities. We have to abandon defensiveness and engage in authentic conversation.
Habit 5 is to inspire mass action and social change. Governments and organizations rarely create sustained positive social change—people do. Using empathy to connect with other, like-minded individuals is what starts social change. It can start within your own school or college. It can involve your colleagues and students. The bottom line is that the use of empathy facilitates understanding, and shared understanding can foster the will to change. One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has” (Quote Investigator, 2017b)
Finally, Habit 6 is to develop an ambitious imagination. The social isolation prompted by the pandemic has encouraged us to remain in our own echo chambers. An ambitious imagination requires that we reach out to those with whom we disagree in an attempt to find common ground. Creating relationships requires conversation. We may not be achieving world peace, but if we make the effort to make our own organizations a better place to work, that would be a good start.
It's up to each of us to practice what we teach and use empathy in our daily interactions with colleagues and students. As the famous quote attributed to Mahatma Ghandi says, “Be the change you want to see in the world” (Quote Investigator, 2017a) and make it a new year of understanding and purpose!
Postscript: Finally, as we begin a new year, I am delighted to announce a new member of our editorial team.
Mona Newsome Wicks, PhD, RN, FAAN, has been appointed Assistant Editor of the Journal of Nursing Education. Dr. Wicks has been a member of the Journal's Editorial Board since 2012 and was a Review Panel member for several years prior to that promotion. Dr. Wicks currently serves as Professor and Chair, Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, The University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Nursing in Memphis, Tennessee, where she has served on faculty since 1987. She teaches in the DNP and PhD programs and has an National Institute of Nursing Research funding history with studies concerning ethnic minority, family caregiver, and women's health within the context of chronic disease. Associate Editor Teri Murray and I are delighted she chose to join our team!
Amy J. Barton, PhD, RN, FAAN, ANEF