Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Moving From Empathy to Humility

Practicing humility can improve team-based care.


Acting with humility is granting someone else a higher status than one claims for themselves. This acknowledgement of respect is critical to being an effective healthcare professional.

I lead educational programs for health professionals centered on cultivating and sustaining attributes related to empathy. I frame empathy as a fundamental human experience and provide particular “workouts” to enhance participants’ capacity for empathy in order to bolster respect, perspective taking, communication skills, and shared understandings among health professionals.


Recently, however, I realized I was missing a key piece of the puzzle. It isn’t just empathy that’s crucial for giving patient care, but also humility. And this is where I now focus my research, programming, and advocacy. How do/can we “teach” humility? How do/can we nurture and encourage it? How can we expect healthcare professionals, physicians specifically, to connect with patients and colleagues if they first don’t see others as at least on the same level as themselves?


Humility is granting someone else a higher status than one claims for themselves. Expressing humility can be challenging (but all the more essential) for those of privilege because of their race and/or gender, as well as for those of high professional status. Humility is an acknowledgement that we, as human beings, owe each other some basic level of respect and civility regardless of social position.


Within the patient-clinician interaction, the patient will most likely assume an immediate deference and humility to the doctor based upon social norms and perceived achieved status of the doctor. Moreover, there’s a remarkably rigid status hierarchy within the health professions—a tiering based upon socially constructed “value” for each health profession, with physicians at the top of that ladder, other health professionals on lower lungs, and support staff at the bottom. These values impact if and how professionals interact with one another, and in turn, impact care delivery and patient outcomes.


For physicians specifically, these hierarchies are taught formally and informally in various arenas of medical education and are consistently reaffirmed in clinical settings. This isn’t to say that all doctors lack humility—far from it—merely that given socialization and professionalization processes and mechanisms, it’s very challenging to sustain and practice humility in medicine.


Teaching empathy is a good first step, but will most likely barely dent the status hierarchies within healthcare. However, healthcare professionals actively experiencing and practicing humility just might. Being aware of our own personal and professional status respective of various social interactions and contexts, especially with healthcare, and purposely granting someone else higher status could be monumental in facilitating positive health outcomes, patient satisfaction, team-based care, as well as enhancing work culture.


Much like empathy, I believe we can build our “humble muscles.” Here are seven fundamental socially-oriented, yet meditative practices you can do on a daily basis—and while these humility practices are primarily for those of privileged and socially perceived higher status, they are worthwhile “workouts” for everyone:


1. Listen mindfully.

2. Reflect on and express gratitude to others.

3. Acknowledge your own privilege and status.

4. Ask for help when you need it.

5. Be open to feedback.

6. Embrace vulnerability publicly.

7. Acknowledge our innate interpersonal connectedness.


Humility builds trust, facilitates learning, and widens perspective-taking. Although it’s other-oriented, humility takes self-awareness, self-acceptance, and even self-compassion. As C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”


“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

-attributed to C.S. Lewis