] The other day I came across a notice written by a well-intentioned occupational therapist for an elderly and forgetful patient. It said: “HAVE YOU GOT YOUR WALKING STICK? YOU NEED IT TO WALK SAFELY!” It was not only in capitals but they were an inch high. Black. And filled an A4 page. The notice shouted. It was meant to go inside the front door to make sure she did not go out with this safety aid.
The intention, I felt, was better than the execution. Too many words to read. Too many for anyone, let alone someone whose focus and retention is not what it once was. Too much type. Too black. And what’s with the exclamation mark? To make this little lecture seem light and jokey?
At the other extreme, my favourite road sign in the world is the one you would see if you attempted to join the wrong side of a dual carriageway in Australia. It says: “WRONG WAY. GO BACK.”
I find these two messages symbolize for me good and bad empathy. The writer of the first showed she had no idea of the inside world of an elderly person forgetful enough to need the reminder (and also now probably constantly being told what to do.) Empathy would have boiled it down to something much easier to absorb. Like maybe “Got your stick?” Not only easier to get but being reminded would be so much more likely to land than being told, yet again, what to do.
“Wrong way, go back” on the other hand displays excellent empathy because it gets it that a driver has only a few seconds to absorb and act on what could be a life-or-death message.
One of the hardest things to teach new therapists is empathy. Often there is a natural abundance of compassion which is what has drawn them to wanting to do therapy in the first place. But empathy is not compassion. Compassion is caring about others. Empathy is the (intention and) ability to get into another’s world.
When I am training therapists-to-be and they say something like: “I want to specialize in anxiety because I have had a lot of it and know what it is like” my heart sinks. Having had anxiety oneself might be good for compassion but it is not for empathy. We are not and should not be a reference source for our clients’ experience, only for our own. To find out about theirs we ask them. And then listen.
Empathy comes when we forget what happened to us and focus on discovering what happened to someone else. And how they experienced it.
We know that empathy, as perceived by the client, is the best predictor of therapy outcome. Which is to be expected. Therapy, I believe, involves doing our best to get into the shoes of the person we are working with and working with them in their world, not bullying them or dragging them or seducing them or cajoling them or shaming them or I-am-the expert-and-I know-besting them into ours.
It is for us to help them find their own answers. As soon as we find ourselves tempted to impose ours it is time for us to remind ourselves: “Wrong way. Go back.”