Improving the use of Empathy in Recovery-Oriented Conversations

This week I am unveiling our new Recovery-oriented Housing Support Training. One of the areas I felt it necessary to add more time and attention is related to the importance of expressing and exercising empathetic conversation. Being appreciative of the client’s thoughts, feelings and experience is important to meaningful support, but too often I have seen well-intentioned support workers miss the boat when it comes to creating an environment conducive to an empathetic connection.

What are some of the common mistakes?

Interrupting is a big one. Sometimes it is to provide advice or try to provide a solution or make suggestions when it is unsolicited. I think some support workers think this is helpful and uses their time better. But if recovery is a process and a journey then we need to take time to let it unravel. This may mean multiple interactions over time.

Making demands of people rather than honoring decision-making and empowering people with information that they can discern is another common mistake. Part of recovery is respecting that people will make mistakes and then engaging with them to debrief on what has been learned. I think it is often out of these protective instincts that I have seen workers order, direct, warn, threat, moralize or preach to their clients. The action of making a demand on someone is laden with authority and power that disrespect the equality that is necessary in empathetic conversations.

Another big one for me is judgment. We all have our personal values, norms and perceptions in life. These differences are important to recognize and respectfully discuss. We should accept and respect diversity, and see “diversity” as having deeper meaning than “variety”. Through judgment comes feelings of being critiqued or blamed. This is unhelpful.

Using humor seems like a light-hearted engagement technique and surely it has a time and place in all good working relationships. But in a recovery-focused conversation it can be a distraction, viewed as dismissive or an unwillingness to engage in a discussion that may be uncomfortable. It can also be misconstrued as what the client is sharing is unimportant – even if that wasn’t the intent of being humorous.

Sympathy can creep in when people are trying to express empathy. Support workers can take on a consoling or pitying role. This may be done to try and make clients feel better, but it can interrupt the flow of conversation where the individual is explaining their experiences and feelings.

So what should be done?

Off the bat, let’s be transparent with the people we work with that different interactions will have different communication styles. There is no point in tricking people or thinking that if we just ask the right questions in the right order that everything will be alright.

Let’s focus on listening – actively and patiently listening – rather than telling. When the time is right in the conversation, present information for the individual to consider and discern, and avoid (as best as possible) requirement of immediate decisions based upon the presentation of information. The knowledge we share should be supportive and without pre-determined conclusion.

Let us offer compliments and acknowledge success when it is warranted. Do not be trite or condescending. Respecting the effort that people put into decision-making is important. Done in the right way, the acknowledgement of effort will enhance the collaboration and openness to discussion and help the client appreciate (perhaps intuitively) that you are being supportive and non-judgmental.

Finally, we can’t force people to talk or engage in conversation that allows us to express empathy. The best we can do is create environments for dialogue. If people understand that we are entering into conversation rather than demanding information from them, the process goes smoother.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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