The Ideas of Empathy in Nursing: A Conceptual Analysis

Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing (1989)

The term empathy has long been of interest in nursing, since empathy is one way in which nurses move from generalized knowledge to particular knowledge of another. Empathy enables the nurse to comprehend the situation of the other in order to improve the health or situation of that other. The focus of this conceptual analysis is the ideas of empathy within the discipline of nursing. An analysis of the nursing literature on empathy from 1960 to 1988 led to the categorization of empathy into four ideas: empathy as receptivity, empathy as emotional contagion, empathy as relationship, and empathy as communication. These four ideas of empathy in nursing were analyzed using differentiation type analysis and conditions type analysis. The ideas were then compared to other ideas including identification, projection, sympathy, pity, helping, and caring to identify essential characteristics of each idea of empathy. ;Findings reveal that emotional contagion does not share essential characteristics with the other three ideas of empathy in nursing. The remaining three interpersonal ideas, though separate and distinct, are directly related through three core components: voluntary, non-primordial experiencing of the situation of the other within some form of interaction, experiencing based on cues consciously taken in through receptivity while being focused on an accessible other, and a consequent feeling-bond in the nurse for the other. Only empathy as communication requires action, since there is a need to communicate something of the experiencing to the other for verification. ;In each idea, having empathy is a non-observable internal state. As a result, the nurse, and in limited situations, the other, can best determine when empathy has occurred. Being empathic refers to those observable skills and abilities related to having empathy. ;Implications include the importance of the nurse comprehending the situation of the other through experiencing the other's perspective for determining patient care needs. Current quantitative approaches to research on empathy in nursing should be reevaluated, since empathy is non-observable and, therefore, presently non-measureable. Further conceptual analysis is recommended on the essential characteristics, such as feeling-bond and receptivity, and on the analysis of related ideas such as authenticity and receptivity.
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