3.2 When empathy is difficult
When considering empathy, it can be useful to reflect on the way in which we relate to people. Aoife Lyons (a clinical psychologist) and Shane O’Mara (a neuroscientist) argue that ‘we judge people first on their warmth and then on their competence, in a few seconds’ (2016). While this applies to how we engage with other people (and the empathy we show) it also occurs when other people engage with us and make an assessment of us, including the empathy which we are demonstrating to them.
There are a number of reasons why on occasion it may be difficult to demonstrate empathy towards the people you encounter.The most obvious is when you find it difficult to tolerate a particular characteristic. A simple example might be if you find it difficult to ‘get near to really smelly people’. This may seem trivial, but it is important to recognise the problem and thereby guard against giving an unsatisfactory service to ‘really smelly people’ or to any other group towards whom you feel an antipathy.
While this example seems straightforward enough, other instances can be trickier, when strongly held beliefs may clash. For example, you might find it difficult to show empathy towards a member of the public who is making racist remarks or refusing to accept services from an officer with a different ethnicity to their own.
Another and rather different circumstance might be where experiences described by a member of the public are beyond your comprehension, and trying to understand them is difficult and distressing for both you and the other person.