Empathy and patient-physician conflicts

J Gen Intern Med. 2007 May;22(5):696-700. doi: 10.1007/s11606-006-0102-3.


Physicians associate empathy with benevolent emotions and with developing a shared understanding with patients. While there have been many articles on managing "difficult" patients, little attention has been paid to the challenges physicians face during conflicts with patients, especially when both parties are angry and yet empathy is still needed. This topic is especially important in light of recent studies showing that practicing medicine increasingly requires physicians to manage their own feelings of anger and frustration. This article seeks to describe how physicians can learn to empathize with patients even when they are both subject to emotions that lead to interpersonal distancing. Empathy is defined as engaged curiosity about another's particular emotional perspective. Five specific ways for physicians to foster empathy during conflict are described: recognizing one's own emotions, attending to negative emotions over time, attuning to patients' verbal and nonverbal emotional messages, and becoming receptive to negative feedback. Importantly, physicians who learn to empathize with patients during emotionally charged interactions can reduce anger and frustration and also increase their therapeutic impact.

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Patient-Centered Care / methods
  • Physician-Patient Relations*