5 ways EMS leaders can better understand medics

The events we experienced early in our career can now help us empathize with those going through similar situations


After nearly 30 years in EMS, I have learned many lessons, both professional and personal, that groomed me into who I’ve become today. Not all of them were positive, especially at the beginning. But those frustrating lessons give me drive and motivation in my leadership style today.

I recall days of sitting in the ambulance and not having my ideas listened to, not having the equipment to get my job done, and experiencing overall poor management. EMS also brought some tough personal lessons including:

  • How to master living paycheck to paycheck.
  • How EMS can unravel a marriage.
  • How to live multiple states away from your children.
  • How to smile and nod when the desire strikes you to stick your pen into your partners eye when he wont stop talking.

The challenges our employees go through today have not changed much. The events we experienced early in our career can now help us empathize with those going through similar situations.

Remember how you felt?

Empathy is the ability to see things from the other person's point of view, to be able to walk in someone else's shoes. EMS leaders need to develop the skills to help read employee’s body language, feel their words and share in their feelings.

Empathy means that you can recall some of those same feelings based on your own memories and experiences. It contributes to an accurate understanding of your employees, their perceptions and concerns.

Ideally, your employees can learn skills in empathy from you, thereby helping them to become more effective leaders, managers and supervisors themselves. Here are five basic foundational facts about empathy and five steps to developing empathy.

  1. We usually empathize most easily with people we know.
  2. Better listeners make better leaders.
  3. Empathy requires an awareness of your own feelings to more easily understand someone else’s.
  4. Non-verbal messages can clue us into how someone else truly feels.
  5. Developing empathy requires putting the practice into play, not just reading about it.

1. Keep a log

Documentation is crucial to the success of our patient care, and as a leader it is just as crucial. Keep a log of situations where you felt you were able to demonstrate empathy and when you felt you did not and missed opportunities to respond with empathy.

Look at the entries often and learn from your written words.

2. Trust your gut

As EMS providers we often familiar with that “gut feeling.” As an EMS leader, perception with our employees is just as vital.

When you become aware of concerns in your workforce, and especially when they may not necessarily be expressed, we need to be able to pick up on them. The key is to remember how you would have handled the same situation back in the day.

3. Know your employees

Always take a mental note of possible emotions or feelings that the other person may be experiencing. Keep an open mind and never assume something is wrong. Just explore the possibilities, and assist where needed.

4. Don’t try to fix it

As EMS providers we are there to fix the problems of our patients. We have that “fixer” mentality. When an employee shares their problems, we want to jump right in and do the same thing.

Instead, practice listening without interrupting. Wait until the other person is complete with his point of view before offering yours. Always check the meaning of what was said. Paraphrasing back to him can help clear up misconceptions and deepen understanding.

5. Don’t get defensive

Avoid being defensive in order to create an open dialogue where possibilities can be explored freely. Do not take an employee’s criticism personally.

Leaders with empathy are good at recognizing the feelings of those around them. Understanding what an employee may be going through, because we’ve shared a similar situation in the past, becomes an excellent way of developing and managing relationships.

As we matured into EMS leaders, we heard how important it was to listen to what our employees were saying. Let’s also start listening to what our employees are feeling. Chances are, we felt the same exact way once. 

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