Communication in the workplace is one of the more important topics discussed at one of our Sussex & District Chamber of Commerce members’ meetings.

By Harold Taylor

There’s a lot more to it than simply good writing, clear speech and active listening.

Never underestimate the importance of empathy. For example, research has shown that patients whose doctors pay attention to their feelings and concerns heal faster. Researchers also found that the patients’ immune systems were boosted as well. One study by the University of Wisconsin, School of Medicine revealed the impact of doctors showing sincere concern for their patients.

Patients of doctors who expressed concern had a cold disappear sooner than those whose doctors focused on just the facts. Randomized trials showed that colds lasted an average of just six days for patients with empathetic doctors vs. seven days for patients whose doctors had little empathy. It was shown that the empathy also boosted the patient’s immune system.

But can doctors or any of us actually show empathy on demand? Do we have control over whether we have empathy or not? Well we can certainly give our mirror neurons a fighting chance to do their thing.

We catch more than just colds from one another. We can catch people’s mood, pain, grief and compassion. And body language aside, the reason appears to be those mirror neurons that have been capturing the interest of neurologists and others in the last ten years. These mirror neurons – cells scattered across our brain that reflect their surroundings – including the actions and feelings of others.

Our mirror neurons fire regardless of whether we or someone else is performing a specific action. That enables us to relate to the person to the degree that we even have a fair idea of why they are performing that action. For example, when you are grabbing a cup of coffee, a specific mirror neuron fires to tell your hand to reach out and grip the handle of the cup. And when you watch a friend pick up her own cup of coffee, the same neuron also fires as if you were also picking up her cup of coffee, even though your hand is not moving at all.

This empathy with others includes emotions. So if you cringe at the sight of someone else getting hurt, empathize with your friend who is grieving, and feel uncomfortable when a co-worker is upset and anxious, blame it on these specialized brain cells.

What I meant when I suggested you give your mirror neurons a chance to do their thing is that just because you are in a rush, for example, doesn’t mean you have to act as if you’re in a rush. University of Kansas researchers studied the effect of doctors standing vs. sitting when visiting their hospital patients. When questioned afterwards, the patients whose doctors sat with them perceived the visit to be a lot longer than those patients whose doctors stood by their bedside.

Whether you are a doctor, a caregiver, a manager or a parent or whoever, even if you have only ten minutes to talk to a person, you can still sit down—which makes you much more connected to the person than if you’re standing up—and make good eye contact, nod your head, lean in – all the actions that convey that you are present mentally and emotionally as well as physically.

The worst thing you can do is remain standing, walk to the door, put your hand on the door handle, and keep talking, because then the person does know that your mind as well as your body is already on the way out. Instead, you could stay seated and say, “If you have another question, I can answer it now, and if you’d like more time to go over things, we can schedule another visit.” That way, you’re completely with the individual, and not sending the message that you can’t wait to get out of there.

Although environmental factors such as the colour and décor of surroundings can have a calming effect on people, they aren’t as important as the human element. You cannot communicate effectively towering over someone while they sit at their desk or on a living room couch or in an examination room or in a hospital bed. Regardless of your job or profession, communication requires empathy.

As the old saying goes, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Harold L Taylor, owner of, is a member of the Sussex & District Chamber of Commerce and a columnist with the Kings County Record,

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