Skill 3: Empathic Connection
Empathy is a touchstone of social work and a hallmark of the compassionate social worker (Grant, 2014). Indeed, we thrive on empathy and its power to uphold healing connections with others. As such, we prioritize relationships as the mechanism through which healing happens. However, the complexities of developing and practicing empathy are only beginning to be understood and researched (Germer & Siegel, 2012). Grant (2014) highlights that definitions of empathy are typically limited to the ability to “adopt the perspective of others in order to understand their feelings, thoughts, or actions. Such definitions do not adequately reflect the realities of empathy in the social work context or recognize its potential to lead to distress” (p. 338). Similarly, Gair (2013) points to the need for additional research on how empathy is developed via the social work classroom, beyond just an emphasis on its importance.
As we continue to build our understanding of holistic engagement, we add the skill empathic connection as a logical correlate of presence with the whole self and whole self-inquiry. Through our previous discussion, we underscored the centrality of the student-teacher connection in creating needed safety to explore unknown parts of the whole self experience.
If one can bring whole self presence to connect with another in healing relationships, one likely will experience an exponential impact of that connection. If one brings only parts of oneself, the impact is limited also.
Holistic engagement relies on an unconventional definition of empathy, termed empathic connection, defined as with whole self presence, intentionally joining with the experience of an other (individual, family, community, environment) to bear witness to that experience, while recognizing the limits of that joining. This type of empathy requires an active engagement, and it includes recognizing one's own experiences in the moment, one's reactions to those experiences, in addition to the data we receive concerning the experiences of the other. It further requires being aware of what we are experiencing while being aware that another person is experiencing something, perhaps some version ofwhat we sense and imagine, or perhaps not. While holding our experience in mind, we also imagine ourselves in their experience and responding as ourselves, based on our actual coping style, but we also imagine ourselves, to the extent that we can, in their lives and responding how they would. Empathy requires all of these dimensions to be considered and to integrate all of them in a split-second opportunity to connect with another. Familiarity with this nuanced level of complexity for empathic connection is generally beyond what is currently included in traditional methods of social work education (Gerdes, Segal, Jackson, & Mullins, 2011; Miehls & Moffat, 2000).
Our conceptualization of empathic connection includes some consideration we do not typically address relative to empathy and social work education. Specifically, empathic connection includes recognizing our own limits. This is important in a number of ways, especially as we are looking at the expanded whole self. We can recognize that there are places, experiences, feelings, and complexities that other people experience that we simply cannot. We honor that our experiences differ from others, that the history that we have experienced, our knowledge of the places, all of our individual character traits, ideas, and emotional states, are as unique as we are. Indeed, our social locations are often vastly different and for a white middle-class social worker, for example, to presume to know what it feels like to be an immigrant of color is narcissistic and only perpetuates the oppression we are working to transform. We come to the realization that connecting accurately and understanding every single one of those dimensions, given how many permutations there are potentially of each of our own complexities, is a highly unlikely connection.
This does not take away from our capacity for caring or our capacity for compassion. However, we do have to be able to hold that recognition of how complex we are as individuals and how complex they are as individuals and know that those realities affect how deeply and how completely we can connect. Grant (2014) reports findings that suggest that students require support to develop their empathic and reflective skills to “effectively manage the emotional demands of practice” (p. 338) and further recommends the use of experiential learning, including mindfulness for this purpose. We have to grapple in the educational realm with how well we can fundamentally prepare students to connect, to experience empathy, on all of those different levels while holding a commitment to the professional boundaries that are needed in the relationship.