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Collaborative problem solving for community safety
Collaborative problem solving for community safety

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3 Developing empathy and building relationships

3.1 What is empathy?

Described image
Figure 2 Most people use empathy in everyday life

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

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. In so doing we identify with the characters we meet there and enter into their worlds.

You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Empathy is a skill that is vital for understanding the experience of other people, especially those people whose experiences are very different from your own.

How people respond to stress and distress depends on their previous experiences and the sense they have been able to make of them. If an individual’s experiences are very different from yours, then you may misunderstand their response, or even the cause of their distress. Such misunderstandings can potentially lead you 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.