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In their creativity can unlock professional empathy

Empathy -the ability to stand in another’s shoes and see the world from their perspective. Is this is a quality that professionals in health and social care can learn? Why is it important? And, if we take the view empathy can be learnt, how can we teach it? In this blog I will share the learning from using a creative method of assessment with students on a vocational degree programme. My students inspired me and maybe in turn you might be inspired to be more creative.

There are conflicting views in the health and social care arena about whether empathy is something you either have, or, you don’t. Many would argue, and I would agree, that showing empathy for service users is essential in the helping professions. Empathy is an essential ‘building block’ for ethical, kind, understanding and compassionate care (Dinkins, 2011).

A lack of empathy from professionals can damage people. Hear the voices (via tweets) of people like Sara @sarasiobhan (a bereaved parent battling for justice), or SafeguardingSurvivor @survivecourt (who has endured more adversity in a lifetime than anyone should) and pause for a moment. Consider the impact a lack of professional empathy has had on them. Consider also the fine, blurred, line between professionals and service users. There is no ‘them and us’. We all use services sometimes. We all want to be treated empathically. Whether it is from our GP, or other services, we all want to be understood.

It makes my blood boil when I hear social workers, or their educators, talk about empathy as a fixed character trait - “You cannot teach empathy!” I beg to differ... if we thought people could not develop empathy, then many interventions with service-users would be pointless. Think about a parent struggling to understand their child’s behaviours. Do we give up and say if they don't have empathy they will never empathise with their child? I hope not.

Theories tell us that empathy grows from being nurtured and protected. From a safe base, and secure relationships, we become emotionally literate and regulated. Then, little by little, empathy grows. Parents teach empathy to their children. For example, “Give teddy a hug he feels sad!” If very young children can show empathy, and they can, then surely adults can learn to be more empathetic?

We should be making every effort to enable students on vocational courses to develop more empathy. I found that traditional teaching methods and assessments had their place, in providing the underpinning theoretical constructs, but they did not necessarily mean that any empathy was developed. This led me to try various creative methods of teaching empathy. Some were more successful than others. I am no expert. Just someone trying to work out ways of enabling practitioners to make a positive difference in people's lives. I was left with the question of how to assess this nebulous concept of empathy. Can we measure it? How will we recognise it? Reflective writing allowed some students to express their empathy but others really struggled with this. A creative approach was called for. I stepped bravely into the un-tested and I was blown away by the results...

I set an assessment task for the students’ portfolios. I asked them to use any creative means they wished to convey being a recipient of good quality services - “imagine you are the service user”. In order to make this an emotionally rich, and safe, activity I worked collaboratively with the students to create a supportive environment where people felt able to express their feelings. We spent time thinking about the possible impact of imagining themselves in other’s shoes. The students decided they wanted their assessed work to be shared in a mini-exhibition. The feedback, from peers, service-users and other visitors, added to the evidence of the deep learning that had occurred. My observation is that using creative methods ‘unlocked’ some empathy being held behind emotional defences. I needed to be sensitive to this and provide emotional containment if needed. Thus this was more demanding (and more rewarding) for me than marking assignments from the safety of the staff room.

The results exceeded all my expectations. The empathy and depth of emotional literacy shown by these students was outstanding. The use of a creative activity enabled all the students to ‘shine’ regardless of their academic ability. The students learnt from undertaking their own work but also from engaging with each others. I learnt from them. And I learnt about them. We all learnt. Together.

The impact on everyone of walking into a room where everything was displayed was moving. The culmination of collective hard work. Photo-stories were playing to music on the big screen, poetry, photo montages, embroidery, masks, and a quilt were displayed alongside a big installation representing a journey. There were eloquent written pieces. Some courageously shared their own experiences as a service-user, or carer, and others were passionate accounts of working in health and social care settings. I was in no doubt my students had empathy. Empathy in abundance!

Empathy is not a fixed ‘value’ it is a fluid thing born from healthy relationships. It is sustained by reflective capacity, self-awareness and support networks. As they progress through their careers, my hope is that my students’ empathy will continue to develop and that they will treat service-users with compassion and humanity. As a professional I continue to work on my own empathy levels. I won't always have enough. Or sometimes I will have too much. I am work in progress. We all are.

In writing these blogs my aim is to stimulate ideas and debate. So do please share your views with me.

My thanks to @survivecourt and @sarasibohan (and all the service users and carers who share their stories so generously on Twitter). There is a silent army standing beside you who have experienced similar issues. Your voices are important in provoking change and they are vital to professionals and students. We need to be constantly reminded there is no ‘them and us’ and to think about the impact of our words and deeds. So thank you.

Thanks also to Alison Lamont. The ‘See it my way’ assessment task, you set me as a social work student many years ago, made a huge impact on me. It sowed the seed...

And thanks to my students. You know who you are and you were a pleasure to teach.


Dinkins, C., (2011) ‘Ethics beyond patient care: practicing empathy in the workplace’ Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, 16 (2) www.nursingworld

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