My attendings in clinic, they think I'm a natural at this outpatient game. My patients rate me extremely high on satisfaction scales. They are in fact vocal about their love for me in clinic. It makes me blush every time. One attending pointed out to me that I'm so good at this because I have such deep empathy and compassion for my patients, and you can't fake that. People can sense it.
If you don't know what the difference between sympathy and empathy is, it's an important split. Sympathy is pity. That's not a bad thing. Pity can be great. Sympathy is how we feel about something someone else is going through. "I feel sorry for him" is a sympathy statement. Empathy is more about walking a mile in someone else's shoes. It's trying to understand what's behind the emotion. "I can see why he'd be sad" is an empathy statement. At its very basics, sympathy is what we feel; empathy is trying to get what another person feels.
For the sake of completeness, compassion is a different entity too. It's too trite to equate compassion and sympathy. They're not the same. Compassion is seeing the suffering of others and wishing to alleviate it in a palpable sense.
I can't tell you how I ended up with an extra helping of empathy and compassion. My attendings keep telling me that it comes from me naturally. It doesn't. I am the most introverted person I know. I'm practically a hermit. Growing up, I was so shy that I was nearly dysfunctional. I was afraid to ask for ketchup at McDonald's, horribly afraid, tearful and tremulous afraid. I learned to interact with the world in more healthy ways, but in a lot of ways, I'm still that shy little kid.
There's no rule for how to be empathic or how to have compassion. And I have no idea how to learn those things. But if you do have empathy and compassion for your patients, then don't let that go. It's so precious. Because it is our empathy and compassion that let patients know that we are human beings, and that's all most patients want from us.
And I've seen doctors try everything in order to try to seem human to patients. They'll talk about sports or the weather or clothing or cars, or they'll touch patients or make a lot of eye contact. And if you went home to your wife and did this every day, she'd divorce you. My only advice to you on the subject of empathy and compassion is this: be a human. If you can do that, the rest of this doctoring stuff is cake.