Can compassion and empathy be learned?

Can compassion be taught?


At the University of Virginia, our nascent Compassionate Care and Empathic Leadership Initiative — a lengthy, fancy name for a simple, purposeful way to teach kindness, usher resilience and nurture compassion — is seeding change in fertile ground. An all-volunteer army of more than 70 nurses, physicians, chaplains, students and others are gathering monthly to consider meaningful, relevant ways to develop our personal reservoirs of compassion, noting simple, small ways we can better care for our patients, one another and ourselves.


These are concrete ways that help us to be more compassionate caregivers — ideas that could, in this season, be spread not with high-minded self-righteousness but rather with quiet kindness and empathy.

Perhaps the biggest lesson is to cultivate an ability to listen to others. Not planning on what you’ll say next while another person is talking, but really hearing what is being said, taking the time to consider it before responding. And sometimes, taking what someone says and sitting with it, quietly, and thoughtfully, and even without response.


Dorrie K. Fontaine is dean of the University of Virginia School of Nursing