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An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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Empathy is a skill that is vital in social work for understanding the experience of service users in order to help them more effectively. This is particularly important for those service users whose experiences are very different from your own. Empathy is one of the basic building blocks that you will need to develop a professional social work identity. Later in this course you will consider service user perspectives, and values and ethics.

How people respond to stress and distress depends on their previous experiences and the sense they have been able to make of them. If a service user’s experiences are very different from yours, then you are quite likely to misunderstand their response, or even the cause of their distress. Such misunderstanding can lead you, as the practitioner, to react unhelpfully, and to make things worse.

You cannot assume that other people will see things the way you do, or respond in the way that you would, because your feelings and reactions are influenced by your particular life experiences. How, then, can you go about trying to better understand the experiences and feelings of others? The answer is by developing empathy, something that is less straightforward than it sounds, and which we explore in some detail in this section.

What is empathy?

One definition of empathy comes from the work of the US writer on counselling and social work, Gerard Egan, who defines empathy as:

The ability to enter into and understand the world of another person and to communicate this understanding to him or her.

(Egan, 1986, p. 95)

In the context of social work, Lena Dominelli uses a slightly different approach using a common metaphor to make the same point when she writes about ‘placing oneself in another’s shoes’ (2002).These quotes emphasise that the responsibility lies with the professional to make the effort to understand the other person. However, doing so requires effort and imagination.

Most people actually use empathy in everyday life when they read a novel, watch a television ‘soap’, a film or a play. Indeed, we often judge the success of the novel, film or play by the extent to which we are caught up in the ‘world’ it is portraying, and how ‘real’ the characters in the ‘story’ feel to us. Sometimes we find that the characters continue to live in our imaginations long after the book has been closed or the film or play ended. We have entered, without too much difficulty, into the ‘world’ created by the ‘story-teller’. In so doing we identify with the characters we meet there and enter into their worlds.

Service users frequently tell us that skills of empathy and understanding are relevant in all social workers, including the following:

  • listening (including active listening)
  • giving space and making people feel safe so they can reveal very personal aspects of their lives to social workers
  • remembering shared responsibilities in relationships and thinking how preferences for shared aspects of care could be maintained and not disrupted (e.g. how and when the service user would choose to take care of their teeth and bathe, and how the carer could support this)
  • taking on board the knowledge that carers and service users have about the best ways of helping and caring for an individual.

Lack of empathy

It is clear that service users are very quick to sense when practitioners are attempting to understand but are struggling to empathise. Here is a comment from Kate, a service user at a family centre in Northamptonshire, which illustrates the point very well.


I found that a lot of social workers aren’t really interested in you as a person, and a lot of them say things like ‘I know how you feel’ and ‘I understand what you’re going through’, yet they don’t really know how you feel or what you are going through. That’s because a lot of them have learned it from books, they haven’t experienced it from their own life experiences.

When empathy is difficult

There are a number of reasons why on occasions it may be difficult to demonstrate empathy towards service users. The most obvious is where there is some characteristic the social worker finds difficult to tolerate. An experienced social work colleague once remarked that he found it difficult to work with ‘really smelly people’. This may seem trivial, but for that worker it was important to recognise the problem and thereby guard against giving an unsatisfactory service to ‘really smelly people’ or to any other group towards whom he felt an antipathy. Clearly it is important for social workers, as for all members of the helping professions, to ensure that personal likes or dislikes do not influence the provision of services.

While this example seems straightforward enough, other instances can be trickier, when strongly held beliefs may clash. For example, it might be difficult for a social worker who is strongly committed to anti-racist practice to show empathy towards a service user who is making racist remarks or refusing to accept services from a black or minority ethnic service provider.

Another and rather different circumstance might be where the experiences described by the service user are beyond the comprehension of the social worker and trying to understand them is painful for the social worker. Hedi Argent has described the experiences of a girl who, as a child refugee, saw one of her companions eaten by a wild animal during a border crossing. The girl’s account includes the following description of her experience:

Sudanese child refugee

I left Sudan at night when I was 10 years old. My brother and I walked to Ethiopia. There were many of us walking. I was carrying bread, water and a kind of blanket. I ate every other day. One day I ate, the next I didn’t. I also had a knife to kill wolves. We walked for two weeks. Then we stayed in Ethiopia for a month before coming to England on an aeroplane. I wanted to go to school.

(Argent, 1996, p. 25)

Although Argent did this work with refugees in the 1990s, sadly children and young people today continue to be able to give us accounts of their extraordinary experiences in fleeing their homes to find safety. Traumatic incidents do happen in times of war and conflict, and yet few practitioners will have any idea what such an experience is like. So what should you do? To say in such circumstances ‘I know how you feel’ or ‘I understand what you have been through’ would sound false and silly. Moreover, the service user would be only too aware of this and may find it hard to believe the social worker about other matters. Some social workers might be inclined to disbelieve or minimise the account as too fantastic to be true; but not being taken seriously in this way is likely to damage the service user further. A social worker who feels uncertain or incredulous about such an account should seek advice from organisations that have specialised knowledge in the relevant area, such as the Refugee Council, Refugee Action or a local refugee community organisation.

Find out more

If you would like to learn more about the experiences of child refugees, visit the website of The Refugee Council [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

The quality of empathy is an essential ingredient in social work practice, however it is not something exclusive to social work; as you have seen, empathy is a human quality that is familiar to us in our everyday lives. Like other such qualities, it can be developed through practice and through thinking about that practice. It helps us to enter into the experiences of other people and thereby understand them better. This becomes especially important when service users come with experiences that are far removed from the social worker’s life experience.