Teaching Empathy, Practicing Presence

A primary value of social work, relationships offer individuals the connections needed to thrive and offer social workers the vehicle for fostering healing when thriving does not happen. Empathic relationships are a conduit for amelioration of damage to the self, as “clinician empathy is necessary for establishing the holding environment of the therapeutic alliance” (Turner, 2009, p. 99). Gerdes et al. (2011) proposed a model for teaching students empathy that includes activities that nurture and promote the activation of mirror neurons in difficult situations. In addition, they argue for the use of psychodrama and role playing, in addition to mindfulness techniques, to advance student empathy. Enhancing empathic capacity requires practice, specifically practicing intentional presence.

Epstein et al. (2008) state that mindfulness can be recognized and requires practice to become habitual, instilling qualities that patients value in their practitioners, such as attentiveness, interest in the clinical problem, interest in the patient as a person, clinical judgment, compassion, and presence. Improved clinical outcomes and more conscious and personally satisfying ways of practicing can be cultivated through mindfulness training. Similarly, other studies showed that through experiential mindfulness-based training, students described being more patient, aware, conscious, and able to focus (Christopher, Christopher, & Dunnagan, 2006). Krasner et al. (2009) found that provider participation in a mindful communication program was associated with short-term and sustained improvements in well-being and attitudes associated with patient-centered care. Thus, empathy serves as a vital pathway to social work connections and relies on complex aspects of engagement. Furthermore, its role in social work invites social work educators to consider not only how to enhance student understanding of these complexities but also to actively develop the students' associated skills of intention, attention, and presence.

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