Friday, 14 January 2005 - 2:00 PM
This presentation is part of: Attitudes and Skills in Social Work Practice
Workers' Empathic Accuracy as a Function of Attention and Mental RepresentationMichael Hayes, PhD, Providence College.
Empathy for clients is almost universally regarded as essential to helping relationships (Duan & Hill, 1996; Rogers, 1959; Schulman, 1999) and even to basic human growth processes (Emde, 1990). However, empathy receives little, perhaps decreasing empirical study (Sexton & Whiston, 1994). Empathy can be operationalized as a complex of mental activities that includes understanding what a client feels (Emotional Empathy) and thinks (Cognitive Empathy) and responding in a way that conveys that understanding (Empathic Response). In this ex post facto variable relationship study, workers’ performance of these activities is correlated with how they listen to clients and with the complexity of the representation formed by their listening.
Seventy social workers—35 students and 35 experienced workers (M=11 years)—were exposed to a videotaped interview of an adult male "client" and were asked (a) to complete Likert self-scaling of aspects of how they were paying attention to the client, (b) to detail their mental portrait of the client, and (c) to identify what they thought the client was feeling and thinking and to formulate how they might respond to the client empathically at specified points in the interview. Respondents' portraits of the client were scaled in terms of the complexity and depth of the representation. Their empathic responses were scored for accuracy against the combined judgments of an expert panel and the interviewee himself.
Results demonstrated important relationships among these variables: Complexity of the mental representation of the client was positively correlated with higher accuracy on all three empathic tasks (Emotional Empathy [tau-b=.50, p<.001, two-tailed], Cognitive Empathy [tau-b=.61, p<.001, two-tailed], Empathic Response [tau-b=.34, p<.01, two-tailed]. Two aspects of the way these subjects paid attention to the client were found to be significantly related to empathic performance: (a) Greater use of focused attention directed toward the client was associated with more accurate cognitive empathy (tau-b=.18, p<.05, two-tailed) and with less accuracy in predicting the client's response to emotionally "loaded" questions (tau-b=-.18, p<.05, two-tailed). (b) Subjects' self-reports of greater use of "floating," unfocused attention that included the inner feelings and thoughts of the worker herself were correlated with more accurate emotional empathy (tau-b=.19, p<.05, two-tailed) and more accurate prediction of his responses (tau-b=.21, p<.05, two-tailed).
These findings suggest that accuracy of empathic function may be influenced by some factors that can be taught and practiced. Workers listening with "wide spectrum" attention, which included both focused, outer-directed attention to the client and less focused attention to self-feelings and reveries, were more accurate in affective, cognitive, and predictive empathy. Workers with more complex representations of the client (e.g., portraits with greater temporal depth that included contradictory attributes) were likewise more accurate empathizers. Prior studies (Miller, 1958; Stotland, 1969; Zanger, 1966) demonstrate that workers' attention and their representations of clients can be influenced by specific instructions or exercises. The researcher suggests that we should be using such techniques to train our students (and ourselves) to use "wide spectrum" listening and complex portrayal as a basis for empathizing with clients.
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