I just returned from the DTC National Conference, and it’s taken a few days to wind down from all the excitement. While there, I gave a joint presentation with my colleagues at Targetbase and GSK in which we laid out our approach to supporting people with lupus through our “Speaking of Lupus” program. Later that same day, we won the Gold Award for “Best Patient Support Program” for that very initiative. It was an exciting trip, an exciting day, and probably a once in a lifetime experience.
Pretty much everyone I spoke to after I arrived back in North Carolina urged me to write about my experience on my blog. I know it’s good advice, but I put it off because (1) I am really good at putting off blogging, and (2) I really, really wanted to avoid one of those blog posts in which the well-intentioned writer describes how much fun it all was while the unwitting reader struggles to stay awake.
So here’s my alternative: It’s a quick story about the challenges inherent in developing empathy.
While rehearsing for our “panel discussion”, my wonderful and generous colleague Melissa commented that every time she had a question during my portion of the talk, it was immediately answered in the moments that followed. “How did you know exactly what I was wondering about?”, she asked. “It’s like you were reading my mind. Every time a question popped into my head, in the next few seconds, you answered it.”
So you can see why I describe Melissa as wonderful and generous. What an awesome compliment! And it meant a lot to me, because that’s what I am trying to do every time I create anything for patients, students, colleagues, or clients. I always want to “read minds” because that helps me create something that will actually make sense to the people I’m trying to reach.
But the truth is that it’s hard to “read minds”. It’s the essence of empathy, and I’d be a big liar if I told you I was always successful or even mostly successful at being empathetic. It’s something I strive for, but truly putting myself in someone else’s shoes is hard emotional and cognitive work. It requires careful listening and an incredibly active imagination. You have to pretend to be someone else, to imagine their experience. It’s a little bit art and a little bit science, and it’s easy to miss the mark.
Because I don’t always get it right, a compliment like Melissa’s means the world to me. So thanks, Melissa. I’ll keep working at it. And thanks for being so kind as to point it out when I get it right.