When I was an indecisive, whimsical sophomore, circa 2007 at the University of Connecticut, one of the requirements in selecting a career path was that it embodied a counseling component. I didn’t quite aspire to be a mental health counselor, but I undoubtedly wanted to support individuals in some capacity. After shadowing a few SLPs I saw undoubtedly how much counseling was involved across settings. What I did not realize, was how much of the counseling component was learned outside of the classroom. Continuing education courses, mentors, and interdisciplinary approaches certainly played a significant role; however, I would have to say the empathy one develops experientially has been the most significant factor in developing this potentially undervalued skill set. As my fellow SLPs read this, regardless of where they are in their career paths, I hope they feel moved to carefully consider how pivotal compassion, establishing connections, and trust can be in achieving positive clinical outcomes.
Empathy is defined as the ability to share the feelings of others. It is fueled by connection and compassion. I believe success in all jobs requires varying degrees of empathy, whether that be toward yourself, your colleagues, or your clients. As a speech language pathologist, I wholeheartedly believe that in order to connect with your clients, patients, students and families you need to be willing to feel with them and for them. This connection fosters patience and keeps your therapy patient centered. One must not be fearful of feeling, as this empathy is a foundation for trust. The trust of your patients is one of the biggest contributors to their outcomes. Individuals come to you to develop or restore everyday functions. Whether it is the individual or their family, they are navigating uncharted waters. Their trust in you will allow for them to feel connected and understood. It results in open communication regarding treatments, concerns, and carryover that will allow you to adjust as clinically necessary while maximizing your patient’s buy-in.
With empathy comes compassion- an invaluable gift in working with individuals from all walks of life. It is in this empathy and compassion that you will find understanding of an individual’s dreams and fears, or in clinical terms, their goals, and perceived barriers. It is in the compassion that you will understand the “why’s” behind the actions of others and in turn be better positioned to anticipate potential obstacles and or find avenues to effectively work around them. The goal to be compassionate and connected, does not come without more than a few ounces of courage. You will need courage to simply say “I don’t know” when as the expert, you may be relied upon to have all the answers. It takes courage to stand by your convictions when others may not see the value of your efforts, and even more so when you are being challenged.
I have observed how these principles apply across all clinical settings and are arguably equally as applicable outside of the healthcare realm. As an SLP working with adults with aphasia, brain injuries, and or dementia it may be easy to become frustrated, but that’s where empathy comes in. These individuals had fruitful pasts that they feel slipping away, or only have traces that remain. Their families are often left hanging on to memories that serve as a window to a time when their loved one was more whole all the while attempting to grapple with the changes that impact their everyday lives. As a therapist, I needed to feel that. I had to imagine being an adult and wondering where I was? Why was I here? How did I get here? I try to put myself in that moment so that when my patients are irritable, when they repeatedly ask the same questions, or when they miss a step, I remember that is my responsibility to help give them tools to ease some of that anxiety, maintain their independence and preserve their dignity as much as possible. Moreover, it is equally my job, to help their families cope with this loss. I have to remember, both sides are grieving a loss of who they were used to and adjusting to their new baseline before I can provide any therapeutic recommendations.
A similar thought process carries over into working with pediatric clients in clinics and educational settings. I find myself feeling what my clients and their families are feeling. I celebrate their joys and feel their struggles. I sense the pride and the disappointment. I am here to teach and help carry them along the way, easing the load in whatever way I can. At times, this means scaling back on those lofty plans and progress monitoring to build trust with students. This trust takes on many looks. It starts with honesty, the belief that I am on their side, willing to support them and believe in them. It is reliability and consistency, whether that be in my presence or at times even offering something as fundamental as food security. It is the belief that they are my priority. Amidst all the expectations, this compassion and connection might have had a hard time evolving or it might even become lost. Our evaluations, treatments, and our decisions will ALWAYS impact a child and their family, and that can never be taken out of the equation. We MUST think about their perspectives, their feelings. In fact, we MUST lean on our compassion and our empathy in order to support them.
As providers we are eager to treat. Our goal is to make people better, either through developing skills or restoring them. Insurance companies require measurable progress. They often provide limited visits that we need to maximize. In order for that to happen or perhaps, in order to give ourselves the best chance of that happening we need to take some time to sit with our patients and their families, and step into their shoes before diving into treatment in whatever way we can. It is essential that the first few sessions focus on answering questions, providing education, or just listening. It is my firm belief that in doing so, we can garner critical insight to best tailor our treatment methods. Not doing so implies that (rather impressively, I must say) that one has managed to implement the most appropriate treatment plan simply from a referral and a concise medical history. Families are placing an enormous trust in the therapist and therefore it is imperative that we earn it and continue to develop it by implementing a comprehensive, insightful approach.
I am proud to work at KidSense Therapy Group where we heavily focus on connecting with our clients and their families as they lean into us for support. I feel confident in knowing that my colleagues think of each of our clients as an extension of their family. We are here to listen, support, educate, and empower our community. Treatments start with empathy, which leads to trust, which ultimately leads to progress.
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