Episode 14 - How Empathy Drives You Forward in Lactation Care
Hi and welcome to the Lactation Training Lab Podcast! I’m Christine, an IBCLC and lactation career coach. I help current and aspiring lactation care providers optimize their lactation practice and career through resources, information, and mindset shifts that help them to clarify and re-claim their purpose and mission in lactation work. I’ve been in the lactation field for 20 years now and this podcast is my way of sharing with you what I’ve learned and what the future holds for those of us supporting families and babies. Whether you’re seasoned or studying, I hope this show will make you think and inspire you to act. Let’s get started.
Oh, you are not alone! This happens to everyone sometimes. You’re exactly right: what you need are tools to help you when you recognize that it is happening!
Empathy is a funny thing. It makes us want to solve someone’s problem, but it also makes us want to shed tears with them, fight for them or alongside them, and rejoice with them when victories are achieved. We are not only trained and encouraged to be empathetic to lactation clients but biologically wired to empathize with a person who is experiencing a problem. We are driven to help people solve things, but at the same time we are wired to forge and strengthen our connection with them - to build rapport with our clients - so sometimes we let our own emotion or reaction to the situation become part of the story.
The problem with empathy in lactation counseling is that if it becomes the driver of the counselor’s work, it can distract from resolving the problem. As counselors, we need empathy. And we also need lots of other tools: knowledge about how lactation works, an objective view of a client’s situation, access to information and equipment that can contribute to solving the client’s problems, the ability to communicate effectively with that specific client, and more. If empathy were all that were required to help people with lactation, everyone with a heart and soul would be eligible to sign up for this job. Empathy matters, and it often is the driver of our personal mission and purpose in lactation work.
Empathy is 100% a positive force in the world. As lactation care providers, we have a specific relationship with empathy that allows us to effectively assist other people within our really specific behavior and function. We understand that with lactation, there is so much at stake because people with no knowledge or training at all feel entitled to give lactation advice anywhere and everywhere. I would even venture to say that it is empathy which leads nearly all, if not every one of us here, to the mission statement that formed in our heads when we decided to do this work.
However, if empathy becomes the main driver of our interactions with clients, we lose our ability to take an objective view. We may not hear everything a client is sharing, we may fail to take their choices into account, and we may ultimately be unsuccessful at helping them.
When you are feeling like you are becoming too entangled, let’s break down the ways this can show up:
- You are taking too long with clients
- You are missing or misunderstanding things
- You are not sure how to start building a reasonable plan
- Your plans are not effective, not working, not satisfying to your clients
- You are overwhelmed, burned out, or emotionally drained
Too Long, Missing Things, Misunderstanding, Forgetting to Ask: Take a hard look at what your client conversations are like. Is there a lot of conversation that is not directly related to their lactation concerns? Are you driving that conversation because you want to build rapport or because you really really really relate to their situation? Hard truth: that’s not what they need right now, and it isn’t why they hired you. They need answers and techniques to try and reality checks. After your plans and solutions are effective, your relationship can grow. Be nice. Be kind. Be gentle. But also be practical. If their conversation with you left them feeling treated well AND educated on what to do next, you’ve succeeded (even if part of your style is to follow up with an email that reviews the plan for them). Feeling like they’ve just made a new friend or met a soulmate is nice, but it shouldn’t be the only thing they walk away remembering.
How to Build Plan:
Always, always, always ask the client for the end goal - how will you know where to go otherwise? That’s Point B.
Begin with how baby is eating, what baby is eating, how milk production is being protected - THIS IS POINT A.
What needs to change to get from A to B?
How will they do that, beginning with right away and then considering ongoing needs?
That’s the plan
Are there going to be things that are unchangeable by you or client? Definitely. THOSE ARE DISTRACTIONS RIGHT NOW. Put a pin in them. Talk about those later. (Their birth experience was terrible, people keep telling them wrong things, pumps come with wrong flange sizes in the box, etc.)
Plans Ineffective: Unhappy clients, plans requiring too many u-turns
Are you confident in your lactation knowledge? You know how to address problems with information, techniques, and/or equipment?
Good. Now mine your brain for ONLY THE STUFF THAT MATTERS HERE.
Don’t get confused, and don’t be confusing.
Offer your client options for what might improve/resolve their problem, and then let them pick.
If your plans are really prescriptive, then if they don’t work, you become the problem.
If your plans are created as a joint venture, the client owns the choices they make, and if they don’t work, you can gently remind them of the other options they still have!
Emotionally draining work - yes, we are in this field. We all have that. We can’t have it all the time, though.
Really strong mentoring helps people learn to manage it and learn to recognize when they are drowning so they can reach out for help.
Are you reacting emotionally to your client’s goals? - that’s a sign that your biases are interfering in your ability to counsel and create plans.
Are you spending a lot of time in empathy mode and less in physically helping or educating about lactation function? That’s a sign that you are too focused on relationship building.
Feeling angry or frustrated about your clients’ situation OR about their choices? Why are you making this about you - if it’s because your original purpose and mission are being highlighted, good - let’s use that energy. If it’s because your biases are interfering, let’s do some work on that.
If you are mad that clients are giving birth without acquiring prenatal education about breastfeeding, and your mission is to offer amazing prenatal ed to your community, do it. Do more. Market differently. Focus on that and the frustration will ease.
If you are frustrated about the advice your clients are getting from drs offices, create a handout for them or better yet - make a video or a TikTok with anticipatory guidance for addressing some common things they might hear. Focus on creating a helpful solution for the masses and you’ll feel more accomplished.
But if you are just frustrated because all your clients want to use a piece of breastfeeding equipment that had a very negative impact on your own lactation situation, you are elevating your experience beyond its importance to your clients. It’s important and significant for you, but it is not the entire story of how lactation works. Lactation Practice Without Fear is an important strategy for learning to separate your situation from a client’s in order to help them more effectively while safeguarding yourself and fulfilling your mission. When fear or anxiety about your own lactation story interferes, you become less effective at contextualizing the client’s scenario and taking an objective view.
To wrap this up, I want to reiterate that empathy is absolutely essential in lactation work. We are driven to this work because of it and we do this work with empathy because we believe, deep down, that people deserve excellent lactation help from people who truly care about them and their babies. Empathy, relationships, rapport - these are all parts of the basic toolkit for being a great counselor. We also want to use empathy wisely and prevent it from becoming invasive to the point that it negatively impacts our work or causes us to feel that we are personally weary and drained from helping others. We keep ourselves healthy and effective by allowing our empathy to shape and form us, rather than controlling us.
Thanks for joining me today on The Lactation Training Lab Podcast! As always, I’ve enjoyed sharing my thoughts and experiences with you. If there’s a topic you’d like to hear, please let me know by emailing me at LactationTrainingLabPodcast@gmail.com or by sending me a DM on Instagram. Thanks for what you’re out there doing for families and babies!
Listen to Episode 14 here!