Sociology and Ability to Empathise
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Fairbairn (2002) has described the difference between sympathy and empathy as follows:
Like the ability to feel sympathy, the ability to empathise is an indicator of humanity and the two are often confused. Sympathy is an emotional response, immediate and uncontrolled, which may be overwhelming whenever a person identifies closely with another’s situation. For that reason, it can both be destructive of care and mitigate against ethical action. Empathy, on the other hand, is a learned skill or attitude of being, which can be used in the attempt to relate to, communicate with and understand others, the situations in which they live and the experiences and feelings they have. Empathy is not an all-or-nothing affair and it is found to a greater or lesser degree in different people. Not only that, but an individual may be more or less successful in empathising with another or others, and may be more or less inclined to use her ability to do so – depending, for example, on whether they feel responsibility for the other person.
Empathy can be expressed in terms of joy, sadness, excitement, misery, confusion and pain. In the context of work that involves practical caring, empathy allows professional staff and clients to work side by side. It is often described as ‘the ability to see the world from another person’s shoes’, which implies that it is simply about the developed ability to imagine what one might feel like in a given situation. It is about the attempt to understand, to experience, to feel things as another human person understands, experiences and feels them. It is unlikely that a person who develops a skill in empathy will, or ever could, know what others actually feel. Nonetheless, it is important that a skilled care practitioner should learn to make the attempt to imagine the experiences of others.
Information taken from: Fairbairn, G.J. (2002). Ethics, Empathy and Storytelling in Professional Development. School of Care Sciences, University of Glamorgan. http://www95.homepage.villanova.edu/timothy.kirk/ethics,%20empathy%20and%20storytelling.pdf
Within the context of the design of an inclusive curriculum, the ability to empathise is a challenge for students in terms of collaborative group work and understanding the way in which theories and models are developed.
Students who are dealing with emotional issues through the study of literature, may find that they need an outlet for emotional energy, some students (especially those prone to stress and/or anxiety) may find this demanding and difficult.
Students can be easily stressed, become depressed or be prone to rage reactions and/or temper outbursts and similar frustrations.
- It may be helpful to identify a person that a student can go to on a regular basis (if necessary) for support with these issues.
- Be aware of signs from students that things may not be going well.
- Consider peer support such as a buddy system or peer support network.
- Identify relaxation classes that students may wish to attend.
- Help students to recognise some of the precursors to stress.
- Help students to develop strategies of stress management.
- Ask students what positive strategies they have used in the past to help them to cope in stressful situations.
The following strategies were taken from: Waterfield, J., West, B. and Chalkley, B. (2006), Developing an inclusive curriculum for students with dyslexia and hidden disabilities, The Geography Disciplines Network (GDN) Inclusive Curriculum Project (ICP), HEFCE Project, University of Gloucestershire, http://www2.glos.ac.uk/gdn/icp/idyslexia.pdf (information accessed March 2008). Although specifically written for Geography, Environmental and Earth Sciences (GEES), the guidance is applicable to other subjects.
Across the GEES departments, group work has become a widely used form of learning activity. This applies both in campus-based learning and, of course, fieldwork. Many students talk openly of their concerns about the pressures of collaborating with their peers through group work, especially where an assessment grade will be awarded collectively. There are, inevitably, student fears about the standard of work, being perceived as a weak member of a work group or being allocated a designated task that is not playing to the student’s strengths.
Empathy related group work challenges
Inclusive strategies and reasonable adjustments
Reluctance to reveal weaker areas, e.g., spelling, handwriting, inaccurate calculations.
Problems with verbal fluency, processing language and saying the wrong thing.
Increased anxiety caused by group work.
Effects of low self-esteem and lack of confidence.
Mis-cueing facial expressions and body language.
Not wanting different treatment to others.
Ensuring that students are not stigmatised