Empathy as a Way of Acknowledging Patients’ Personhood in Palliative Care Interactions

  • Joseph FordEmail author


The so-called discursive turn in social psychology has provided a framework for understanding psychological processes as interactional phenomena. This chapter considers how doctors actually provide support, focusing particularly on how they empathise with their older patients during end-of-life or palliative care. Using conversation analysis to examine recordings of actual doctor-patient consultations taken from a hospice, this research demonstrates that empathy is an omnipresent feature of palliative care interaction. This means that doctors display it both when responding to patients’ emotional disclosures, and when recognising the concerns that patients might have regarding, for example, difficult-to-follow advice. These findings build upon earlier research showing the end stages of life to be individual and varied, rather than adhering to generic, one-size-fits-all conceptions of what constitutes “good death.” They also have practical implications, as well as illustrating the benefits that an approach grounded in discourse (rather than cognition) can have for research in the psychology of ageing.


Conversation analysis Discursive psychology Discourse analysis Empathy Emotion Medical interaction Palliative care 



I would like to thank the patients and doctors who participated in the study from which the data for this chapter were taken. I would also like to thank Ruth Parry for her helpful comments, Luke Feathers, Christina Faull, and LOROS hospice. Ruth Parry is funded by a National Institute for Health Research Career Development Fellowship CDF-2014-07-046. The data used in this research were collected by the “VERDIS” programme of research and training funded by The Health Foundation Insight Award RU33.


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© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of ExeterExeterUK

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