Trauma-informed Empathy for Health and Social Service Professionals

Counselling: Trauma-informed Empathy (TiE) for Health Professionals

This content is currently undergoing review/revision. Open access to course materials will be restored by August 31, 2021.

According to the latest research, 1 in 5 Canadians are trained in basic first aid or C.P.R. This number is dangerously low, but thankfully most health professionals remain current in these basic skills. Empathy is also a basic skill required before people can help others in distress. The practice of empathy helps us relate to others and respond effectively, and is also a core skill required of professionals in health & social service positions. In many cases, empathy feels easy… until it isn’t. For example, empathy is not easy when we feel rejected by the other party, or when there is conflict. Empathy also feels difficult when barriers impede natural communication. And, a lack of empathy impacts our mental health. We need a basic toolkit for these situations, so we can leave difficult situations feeling less stress.

What is empathy?

Empathy does not necessarily predict helping behaviours; however, the act of empathy is known to make helping others easier. Empathy is also different from pity or compassion. Although empathy feels like an ancient concept, the word itself was developed in the late 20th century from the German term Einfühlung, meaning ”em-” (in)  and “pathos-” (feeling).  The theme of connecting with the senses (Einfühlung) was popular among German artists, and to a lesser extent within psychology.  Early German psychologists researched the different somatosensory sensations produced in response to different environmental stimuli.

The concept of empathy, however, evolved in the mid-1950’s as social psychologists generated new understandings of how people form groups and relationships.  Empathy came to describe a social phenomenon that blurred the boundary between the self and other.  At this time, empathy research also moved beyond psychology and to other social sciences like sociology.  Researchers like Jane Goodall eventually challenged human-centered models of empathy by meticulously documenting how primates – and other mammals – also formed altruistic and affectionate attachments. From that point onward, a growing base of research has distinguished emotions from rational thought. This has also impacted the conceptualization of empathy in the literature. Our current understanding of empathy has defined universal yet flexible processes whereby people connect in predictably irrational ways.

Trauma-informed Empathy Toolkit*

Working Algorithm

While many health professionals associate empathy with active listening, listening alone doesn’t ensure understanding. Behind empathy are a set of critical skills (e.g. presence, safety and belonging) which open minds to deeper connection. Our goal in creating this algorithm was to utilize the emerging science of connection to improve the quality of brief clinical interactions.

Companion Guide

Want to co-author next year’s empathy guide?  With your help, we plan to publish our 2020-2021 empathy methods in a peer-reviewed journal.  Please e-mail us at if you would like to join our Community of Practice.

Competency Tool

Looking to provide feedback on your team’s empathy skills?  Try out this Core Competency Tool that integrates core skills from introductory empathy training.

* The Trauma-informed Empathy toolkit is published as an open-source set of tools. These tools are intended to support Regulated Health Professionals in enhancing their awareness of empathy and rapport-building techniques. These tools can be shared freely (with attribution) and are licensed under the Creative Commons CC-BY-4.0 License. To view a copy of this license, visit:

Published by Adam Henley

Adam is a Registered Nurse with experience in chronic disease management, symptom measurement, hematology/oncology, primary care behavioural health and geriatrics. He combines counselling, nutrition & exercise with traditional home nursing care. Adam cares to live health together with clients in a manner consistent with Parse’s Theory of Human Becoming. At the heart of his care, Adam offers evidence-based strategies to transform health together.

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