Recently members of our youth work research group have been discussing empathy, a theme in our stories. We have more or less come to the conclusion that we can’t, as is often said in youth work, "put ourselves in someone else’s shoes." If each worker and youth has a unique story, then it is impossible. We all see the world through a different lens, experience life differently based on our prior cultural and familial experiences, and subsequently make different meaning of what we experience.
For example, if a youth worker has been in a gang, used drugs, experienced a loss, or been abused, it doesn’t mean that the worker has had the same experience as a youth who is in a gang, uses drugs, experiences loss or has been abused. Likewise a worker who has had success at something is not having the same success. And a worker who experiences sadness, joy, fear, or excitement is not experiencing the same sadness, joy, fear, or excitement as a youth.
Furthermore, we find that when a worker says to a youth that the worker knows what something is like because the worker has been there, it can more or less take away the youth’s experience, or close the door for letting the youth describe how he or she is feeling. Most adolescents, for example, don’t like to hear from their parents or youth worker, "I know what it’s like. When I was your age I did the same thing," especially when it is said in a way that minimizes the youth’s experience.
The goal instead is to try to understand. Workers with empathy are curious about the youth’s experience. They want to know what an experience is like for the youth. These workers also try to understand their own feelings and stories and then use this understanding to open themselves to youths” stories, feelings, etc. This makes them available as Gerry Fewster says to mirror back their experience of a youth. An empathetic worker, for example, shows the excitement, sadness, etc that a youth evokes in the worker as the youth describes his or her experience. And this conveys to the youth that the worker understands, or at least is trying to understand.
It is, of course, all a matter of degree and context–the matter of how close we can come to having another person's experience. Certainly some of our feelings experiences, etc, are similar to youths” experiences and feelings, but it is never exactly the same. We all have our own unique stories and feelings. Perhaps then a better definition of empathy is that we try to put ourselves in the youth’s shoes. By knowing and valuing our own experiences, it makes us value and curious about youth’s experiences. The empathetic worker shows by his or her actions and/or says, "Tell me what it’s like for you, I really want to know. I’m curious about you and who you are. This is how I’m feeling, how are you feeling."
What do you (the reader) think about empathy? we’re interested in your perspective. Write and tell us. It will help us understand.