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Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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4 Empathy

Empathy is one of the essential building blocks for understanding the experience of service users in order to help them more effectively. Sympathy expresses sorrow or compassion for another’s misfortune or difficult circumstances, but it does not necessarily lead to shared understanding. By contrast, Egan (1986, p. 95) defines empathy as: ‘The ability to enter into and understand the world of another person and to communicate this understanding to him or her’. Acquiring this kind of insight requires active listening, but more than this, Egan (1994, p. 106) observes: ‘empathy that remains locked up in the helper contributes little to the helping process’.

You might consider that empathy is more of a personal quality than a skill – thinking back to Lefevre’s (2010) knowing-being-doing model, perhaps it is more about ‘being’ than ‘doing’. You might also assume that it is something that all aspiring and qualified social workers possess. Surprisingly, research by Forrester et al. (2008) revealed shortcomings in social workers’ empathy skills when communicating with parents in child protection cases. This was of concern not only because empathy is a core skill but also because the study found that communicating empathy reduced resistance and enabled parents to share important information. Clearly it is worth exploring in greater depth how empathy, and the skill of demonstrating it, can be developed or improved. Social scientist Robert Carkhuff (cited in Koprowska, 2014) suggests that there are different levels of empathy, as can be seen in the figure below.

This is a diagram showing Carkhuff’s levels of empathy. Level 1 is obstructed listening: The worker does everything but express that they are listening, understanding or being sensitive to even the most obvious feelings of the service user in such a way as to detract significantly from the communications of the service user. Level 2 is minimal listening: The worker tends to respond to other that what the service user is expressing or indicating. Level 3 is mirroring listening: The worker does not respond accurately to how that person really feels beneath the surface feelings: but they indicate a willingness and openness to do so. This level of facilitative interpersonal functioning. Level 4 is empathetic listening: In addition to Level 3, the worker’s response adds deeper feeling and meaning to the expressions of the service user. Level 5 is therapeutic listening: The worker is responding with a full awareness of how the other person and with comprehensive and accurate empathic understanding of that individual’s deepest feelings. This goes beyond what the service user is saying and may need to be prefaced with ‘Correct me if I’m wrong, but what I hear you expressing is...’
Figure 6