Empathy: The foundation of best practice

We are currently working with Corrections Victoria on a large pilot program implementing aspects of motivational interviewing with custodial staff. This is happening in two prison sites and a probation site in the Grampians region. Given that empathy is a foundational skill for motivational interviewing (we code for it as a global measure on the MITI4), inviting staff to take seriously the need to be empathic with those who offend, is one of the key challenges for this project.

Let’s define what we mean by empathy. Dispositional empathy is the tendency for people to imagine and experience the feelings and experiences of others. Researchers typically discuss dispositional empathy in contrast to situational empathy, which is an immediate response to a specific situation, for example what it might feel like to be at the top of a tall building looking down. Dispositional empathy on the other hand is about putting yourself in the shoes of the person who’s feeling anxious about being at the top of a tall building.

There appears to be two schools of thought regarding empathic connections, particularly when working with people who are distressed and/or challenging. Firstly, there is a school of thought that in order to avoid ‘compassion fatigue’ it’s best to put up a wall so that we do not become demoralised and therefore become burnt out on the job.

The second school takes a different view by suggesting that greater empathy reduces the risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. This may be counter intuitive but not surprising. All of us who feel a sense of purpose in our work and meaning are more likely to look forward to our work and start the day from an optimistic position. We are then more attuned to others. One possible explanation for this finding is that empathy may make our work feel more meaningful – an idea that has been proposed in studies of physicians.

However there are many barriers to empathy. As I have described previously anxiety interferes with empathy. Time pressure is often cited as a concrete barrier to listening to others. Feeling under pressure creates a psychological barrier so our anxiety rises. To overcome this, refraining from jumping in to quickly with a solution and taking time to listen well, paradoxically is more efficient. For example, allowing people about ninety seconds to speak without interruption at the beginning of an interview, helps set the tone for trust and disclosure.

Negative emotions that arise when there’s tension between people, also robs us of our ability to empathise. For example, if a prison officer is angry or annoyed with an inmate, it becomes difficult to step back and try to understand what’s driving that person’s behaviour. Often what we see is someone acting badly and making a bad situation worse, and not the reasons behind the behaviour.

Managing emotional and physical safety needs are a core aspect of safe care and containment. In a correctional environment we are often managing people who have difficulty regulating emotions. Rather than being reactive, one of our challenges is to model emotional regulation skills. Doing this ultimately helps others manage themselves and situations in a more appropriate manner, and helps us to avoid burn out and be more purposeful in our work.

Love to hear you thoughts.

Published on Friday, April 28th, 2017, under Motivational Interviewing, Offender work, Programme design & development

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