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How to answer Empathy questions

Empathy is definitely a common buzz word you think of often in terms of interviews. It’s a word people throw about in their personal statement or use when describing what makes a good doctor, but how is it defined? This post will guide you through how to answer empathy questions.

Empathy is defined as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ – so in other words it is all about putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes and trying to relate to things from another’s perspective. It is often confused with the term sympathy which is ‘feeling sorry for someone else’s misfortune’. It is important that you are able to distinguish these two words in your mind, as they often feature in interviews.

The difference between the two is a relatively common interview question and could certainly come up as a one on one station in an MMI. So, I’ve worked through a potential answer below to demonstrate how you might go about approaching this question.

How To Answer Empathy Questions: Worked Example

‘What is the difference between empathy and sympathy and do you think they’re important qualities for a doctor to have?’

1. Firstly, make sure you identify the difference between sympathy and empathy.

For example, you could say, ‘It’s easy to get these two terms mixed up but for me, empathy is about listening to somebody’s point of view, and understanding how words or actions impact other people, whereas sympathy is the act of feeling those impacts. I think both are important qualities for a doctor to inform their communication with their patients.’

2. You could then mention any relevant work experience which enabled you to demonstrate empathy.

For example, ‘In my work experience I was often impressed by the doctors who showed a real understanding of what their patient had to say, allowing them to speak their mind about what they felt was wrong instead of interrupting or rushing them.’

3. Then make sure you reflect on your work experience and what it taught you about empathy.

For example, ‘I felt this made the patient more open, building trust between the patient and doctor. In my opinion displaying empathy like this is key to a holistic approach to patient care. It was clear to me from what I saw that most patients just wanted to be listened to and to have someone try and understand where they were coming from as opposed to just feeling sorry for them. However, expressing sympathy can also help show compassion for patients and aids in helping them feel listened to. For example, doctors could show sympathy in explaining a painful injection to patients, explaining that they will try to make the injection as painless and quick as possible. Overall I think they are both important qualities for a doctor to have to build trust with their patients.’

That is just one way to approach this question but I hope it shows you that it is about more than just giving dictionary definitions of these terms and that they are more than just good words to throw about.

To summarise:

  1. Make sure you can separate and understand these terms for yourself – and define them at the beginning of your answer.
  2. As with any interview question, you improve your answer if you can back it up with personal experience, so draw on your work experience where possible.
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