What is empathy? Is it an inborn trait like personality? Or is it developed through a child’s formative years. Can it be taught?
Those are the questions I have been researching for the past month. Context? I wanted to find out why some social workers achieve better outcomes than others with families in crisis. In my experience, both as a field worker for over a decade and a leader for two decades, the family gets the blame and labeled “resistant.” But it’s not always about the family.
Yes, I have heard things like, “They just didn’t like me.” “They seemed to be listening to what I tell them, but then they disregard it.” or “I just can’t get through to them.” In some instances, further down the road, another social worker tries with the same resistant family and they make real progress. Why?
My research is not scholastically sound, nor is it for publication. I simply wanted to test a hypothesis of mine. I believe that the key to family change is Engagement. And Engagement is achieved by practicing empathy.
So what is Empathy? Empathy is the ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual or group. If you look at the definition, you can grasp why empathy drives engagement. By approaching someone with the desire to understand their perspectives, experiences and motivations, they are more likely to see you as an ally instead of an adversary.
Now, I know there are other variables that could explain why the family is resistant to one worker and open to another.
- The family wasn’t ready for change when working with the first worker
- The family had bias against the workers: gender, race, ethnicity,
- The family was afraid to admit the problem for fear of consequences
Taking those variables into consideration, I still contend that the most prevalent variable remains that the family didn’t feel heard or that their input was valued. Instead they felt that the social worker came to them with pre-conceived ideas about their family. In other words, they felt judged. When I supervised field workers, I had clients ask me for a new worker who would listen to them and not judge.
I cringed when I heard some staff talk about “bad foster kids” or “worthless mom’s for allowing their children to be harmed.” Using those moments for teaching, I would take them aside and ask them to look more deeply into the underlying causes of the behaviors they scorned. Some workers really got it and some did not. I wondered, even then, if empathy was not part of their genetic make-up, could it be taught?
If you read my blog, you know that I am not blaming social workers who are struggling with high caseloads full of serious abuse allegations on children and just trying to keep them safe. While I will not deny that I have seen poor practitioners; in over three decades of experience, the vast majority of child welfare workers cared deeply about making a difference and helping families towards safety, permanency and well-being. As I have written before, the child welfare system itself is flawed and does not always allow the luxury of deep, therapeutic interventions. But undeniably, workers with natural empathy achieve more positive outcomes than those without it. I can attest that families are more open, even to the initial interventions when workers engage them by practicing empathy.
The sworn enemy of empathy is judgement. You see, Empathy approaches softly with the desire to understand and judgement rushes in with his own ideas and thoughts, blocking his ability to hear the faint subtleties of truth. When working with a family in crisis, approaching them with pre-conceived determinations of the truth will cause them to shut down immediately. These families have already been introduced to the high and mighty Mr. Judgement. They spend most of their day with his offspring: Guilt. The choices they made; the actions they took; that brought them to the current situation, have gnawed at them from the inside long before you even met them.
I remember having to interview a man who had molested his step-son. The child had opened up about the abuse to me, and I felt my soul cry out for him. When the time came to interview the step-father, my natural inclination was to hate him for what he did. But, I knew he would not be open if I approached him with my anger and judgement. So, I took some time to myself before going to his house, so that I could clear my mind of indignation. I reminded myself that most abusers have deep rooted trauma themselves and while it did not excuse their behavior, it warranted my listening. During the interview, I had to remind myself of that fact several times as my mind wanted to jump to judgement. The man denied the abuse vehemently, but looked very scared and slightly teary. Sensing the underlying tension, I read the pain on his face. I asked him the question.
“Someone hurt you the same way when you were a child. Didn’t they?”
He stopped talking and looked at me. He then started crying. He told me all about his own molestation and admitted to molesting his step son. Interestingly, my heart went out to him as he cried, but I told him honestly (as I had in the beginning) that I would have to report his confession to the police. He nodded his head, almost in relief, saying that at least it was over.
To be clear, as a social worker, empathizing does not mean abandoning your mission of protecting children. It simply means that you approach each person with an open mind, instead of thinking that you have all the answers. It means listening to their input, their visions and their experiences and working together to come up with the intervention plan. Without Empathy true social work is extremely difficult.
Which brings me to my next question. Is empathy an innate characteristic? According to one psychological study, Empathy is innate to humans when they are born. This is relevant because only sociopaths are unable to feel emotion for other living creatures. Yet, in another study I read, A physician, when asked how his patients respond so well to him studied empathy and concluded that empathy comes naturally to people who have had some background experience to draw from when attempting to connect. Still other research asserts that empathy can be taught.
My own personal opinion is that empathy is innate, but not fully developed in everyone. As one researcher surmised, I agree that empathy can be developed in others by shared experiences that teach them life lessons. But for those who have allowed empathy to lapse, how do they learn to practice it? Developing a way to teach empathy to service professionals is my next project.