Clarification of conceptualizations of empathy

J Adv Nurs. 2001 Aug;35(3):317-25. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.2001.01848.x.


Background: If understanding our clients needs, emotions, and circumstances is fundamental to nursing practice, and empathy is the foundation of that understanding, then a conceptualization of empathy that can be used by nurses is of utmost importance to the profession. In 1992, Morse, Anderson, Bottorff, Yonge, O'Brien, Solberg and McIlveen analysed the concept of empathy in the psychological and nursing literature, and suggested the conceptualization of empathy was incomplete. Since that time, nurse authors have continued to publish conceptualizations and research on empathy.

Purpose: The purpose of our analysis was to describe empathy as presented in the nursing literature between 1992 and 2000.

Method: A concept clarification methodology of concept analysis was used because of the many definitions, the rich descriptions, and the application of empathy as a research variable in the reviewed literature.

Findings: Five conceptualizations of empathy were revealed: empathy as human trait, empathy as a professional state, empathy as a communication process, empathy as caring, and empathy as a special relationship.

Conclusions: The literature reviewed contained evidence that the concept is developing more depth and breadth. Nurse authors are approaching empathy from a variety of perspectives, time frames, measurements, and outcomes. While all are important to the development of the concept, further enrichment of the conceptual work on empathy is needed before a fully mature concept emerges that is fully useful in nursing practice, research, and education.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • Empathy*
  • Humanism
  • Humans
  • Models, Nursing*
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Nurse-Patient Relations*
  • Nursing Evaluation Research
  • Nursing Process
  • Outcome and Process Assessment, Health Care
  • Professional Competence