HJ Talks About Abuse: Empathy
Our latest HJ Talks About Abuse podcast is on the topic of 'empathy'.
We have chosen this as a subject because we were asked by one of our listeners to explain how we manage our emotions when dealing with Child Sexual Abuse cases.
The question is apt because empathy or perhaps the lack of it was explored at the recent IICSA hearing in to the Roman Catholic Church.
Baroness Hollins when she gave evidence to IICSA said, in relation to church leaders in the Roman Catholic Church:
"I think my perspective is that people understand the need for procedures and policies, but at a cognitive level. There is a sort of cognitive empathy, but not an emotional empathy. It's the failure to actually understand at a deeper level what the...why this really matters. I believe that we can teach empathy.
"I believe empathy can be taught. But if it hasn't been taught, and if...and not everybody develops empathy naturally. If people have grown up in a particularly empathetic family, maybe they will have more emotional connectivity and more emotional understanding. But my sense is that some people didn't get it at an emotional level, and that doesn't mean they didn't get it at a legalistic perspective."
As lawyers we have to be professional and strive to the highest of standards, but we are human! We can only be taught so much, and we have to find our own way in developing the skills we need to relate to people, and not just clients. We can watch and learn and see how others deal with unfamiliar situations and conversations.
Turing to Child Sexual Abuse it is needless to say not an easy subject to discuss, let alone raise in conversation, but through experience we have hopefully learnt enough to do so.
We have to remain emotionally detached. That might sound cold but we have to be in order to be objective. Clients such as Child Sexual Abuse survivors come to us not for sympathy, but for advice and representation. We cannot deliver if we lack objectivity and so we have to remain emotionally uninvolved, but we can and should have empathy.
Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another or to put it another way, standing in the shoes of another, whereas sympathy is feeling sorrow or pity. The practical difference as practitioners is to try and see matters from the client’s perspective as opposed to saying “I understand what you are going through” which unless you have gone through their experience it is impossible.
To provide objective advice and representation we have to be conscious of that distinction.
Can empathy be taught? On the basis of experience and training then yes, and with it that ability not to get caught up emotionally in the clients’ cases.
Of equal importance is to recognise it is a privilege to represent survivors and to listen to their accounts which very often have not been shared before. Likewise we have the unique opportunity of witnessing how a survivor very often has been able to overcome the adversities of life inflicted upon them as result of the abuse, and that in a way can be humbling. This in its own way gives us a sense of perspective and assists in helping us to remain objective.
As for empathy in the Roman Catholic Church leadership we will discuss that some more in a future podcast.
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