What’s in a Word: Empathy




By Al Murdach, LCSW (retired)

This column examines words which impact social work practice and are thus important for social workers to ponder and explore. The word for this column is: empathy.

Empathy can be defined as the “capacity to identify with another person.” Another author defines it as the “imaginative projection of one’s own consciousness into another being.”

For decades, social work theorists and authors have seen it as a key ability and skill essential to all modes of social work practice, and one which is especially important when working directly with individuals, couples and groups. Several classic social work texts have delved deeply into the process of empathy in clinical practice; among these are The Dynamics of Therapy in a Controlled Relationship (1933) by Jessie Taft and Relationship, The Heart of Helping People (1979) by Helen Harris Perlman. Perlman, in particular, stressed the need for the worker to “bond” with the client through empathy as a way of fully engaging the client in the helping process. Drawing on such works, Shulman, a noted social work scholar, has insisted that a “preliminary empathy” is essential in all beginning interactions with clients if one is to engage them fully in the process of solving problems.

While social work authors have always praised the idea of empathy, the field at large has tended to respond to this emphasis with a degree of ambivalence. While some have urged social workers to “identify with their clients,” “be a friend for the client,” and “join clients in advocating for their interests and rights,” others have stressed instead that impartiality and objectivity on the worker’s part are essential in helping others and must not be compromised. Gordon Hamilton, for example, famously once observed that the service offered by the worker is not the helping relationship itself but the resource offered by the worker. Old social work proverbs make similar observations. For example, one states that “if the worker joins the client, then helper’s chair is vacant,” while another cautions that “if the worker feels the client is tugging at his or her heart strings, it is more likely that the client is pulling the worker’s leg.”

In a recent article, psychologist Paul Bloom addresses this tricky issue of balance between empathy and professional distance in helping relationships. According to him, human empathy is highly overridden by emotion, which may lead us to behavior that is “biased, tribal, and often cruel.” This is because it is highly focused on the plight of single individuals or groups of individuals and neglects broader considerations, such as the wider and long term consequences of our actions. A common example would be what often occurs when homeless individuals are encountered begging on the street. Felling empathetic, some people may feel moved to give the individual money to ease their plight. While occasional instances of this response may be harmless, such donations to do little to ease the individual’s long-term situation and if repeated many times may actually prolong the individual’s desire to stay on the street and not seek shelter or rehabilitation of any kind. Thus, empathy tends to be strongly directed by our intense desire to immediately reduce the sufferings of the individual immediately in front of us and fails to consider harm or the needs of others equally needy but not present and other alternatives for addressing suffering (such as providing meals, housing and social programs for the homeless).

Bloom recommends instead helping approaches based on “compassion” rather than empathy. In these approaches some degree of rational deliberation is used to guide helping efforts. These approaches would thus be more programmatic, with a consideration in some way of goals, boundaries, values and the costs and benefits of various means of help, as well as some consideration of the effectiveness of such efforts.  Thus, compassion, he explains, is feeling for but not with the other person. In this way we learn to listen to our heads and not our hearts and with much better results.

“Too cold,” social workers may object. But, says Bloom, it “makes the world a better place.”