Understanding Difference & Diversity to Develop Empathy

13th December 2016 – Session 8

The topic of discussion today was Understanding Difference & Diversity to Develop Empathic Understanding. We explored why an understanding of difference and diversity was important when using counselling skills in helping roles. We then went on to broaden that understanding and consider difference and diversity within our own personal relationships and in the wider social context to understand how this impacts on counselling.

The reason difference and diversity is an important part of counselling training is to recognise that we are not all the same, everybody on the planet is a unique individual, even identical twins will have many differences in the way they feel and respond to different things. Whilst researching this topic I have come to realise that it is more complex than I first thought and goes far beyond the common diversity issues of gender, race, religion, and disability. Diversity runs much deeper than this and also comprises diversity of personalities, experiences, beliefs, and reactions to events. It is important to recognise such diversity if empathic understanding is to be provided to clients, but what is empathic understanding? And why is it so necessary?

Empathic Understanding is one of the three core conditions of Person-Centred Counselling, the other two being Unconditional Positive Regard and Congruence. To be empathic has been described as seeing the world through the eyes of another person or walking in another person’s shoes. It means that the counsellor accurately understands the client’s thoughts, feelings, and meanings from the client’s own perspective. When the counsellor perceives what the world is like from the client’s point of view, it demonstrates not only that that view has value, but also that the client is being accepted. Could I show empathic understanding to a person or group whom I harbour stereotypical views or prejudice about? I doubt that I could be truly empathic in that situation so I would either change my mindset and try to remove the prejudice or take advice from my clinical supervisor. Further to this, empathy has often been confused with sympathy but they are very different. Empathy is something that is done with someone whereas sympathy is a reaction to someone. Sympathy suggests feeling sorry for someone and that in turn suggests some sort of power imbalance, i.e. the person sympathising is in a greater position of power. Empathy is about being on an equal footing by entering into the clients world to try and understand and also communicating with each other to clarify and confirm that understanding.

Without recognising diversity, it would be all too easy to impose our own thoughts and feelings onto a client, especially if the client is experiencing something we have experienced as It is human nature to look for similarities in other people and to identify with them. As counsellors, therefore, the challenge comes in identifying difference and being ok with it – working with it, rather than being threatened by it. The counsellor who can’t do this is merely placing more conditions of worth onto the client, which is incompatible with another one of the Core Conditions mentioned, namely, Unconditional Positive Regard.

I started to think about my own beliefs and prejudices, do I have any prejudices? Surely not, I am a trainee counsellor and I work in a bank! But whenever I hear a Birmingham accent I`m afraid I do think that the person talking must be stupid. When I hear a Liverpool accent I think of youths, hoodies and joyriding. A quick bit of internet research shows that the three most disliked accents in the United Kingdom are Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow in that order with Birmingham being the most disliked. I know that for me to think all people from Birmingham are stupid and all youths from Liverpool are criminals is incorrect and wrong but our prejudices are deeply ingrained in us and difficult to remove as they have probably been instilled in us over a period of many years, possibly (probably) since childhood.

So, how do we start to work towards removing our own prejudices? I should imagine one good way would be to Increase your exposure to or contact with those who belong to the groups toward which you have learned some prejudicial stereotypes. Misconceptions remain effective only when you avoid contact with those about whom you have misconceptions but, unfortunately, I do not know anyone from Birmingham or Liverpool. However, whenever I have prejudicial thoughts now I try and examine these thoughts and analyse why I am thinking them. I normally find that there is no real reason for my generalisation or prejudice and try and tell myself to remove the prejudicial feelings. If I keep reinforcing this I am sure it will start to work.

We all experience things in a different way. A situation that could upset or annoy me could be viewed completely differently by another person. An example of this could be when there’s a traffic accident and the police ask for witnesses to come forward and describe what happened. They like to have as many witness statements as possible so that they can build up enough evidence to give them a broader, more realistic version of events. In a traffic accident, there will be many different perspectives on what happened. The driver of one car will have one view, another driver or a passenger will have yet another view. Each onlooker who witnessed the accident will have a slightly different perspective, depending on where they were, how far away they were, how good a view they had, what else was going on, how much danger they felt they were in, how the accident affected them, what the accident means to them etc.

It’s the same principle with everything – each situation, event or conversation means something different to all those involved, and also to those not involved. We give different meanings, according to our belief systems, and how we are affected by the event.