The literal translation of this word is “with-feeling” (i.e. empathy) and that’s what my Bolivian colleagues and I discussed yesterday, when planning our focus group discussion with poor people to find our more about the multiple dimensions of poverty. We are still in the process of deciding whether we’ll rather focus on the “logistical” aspect (as in: access to services) or whether we will brave into asking about more emotional aspects of beeing poor, such as the shame, stigma and fear. Can you ask a group of poor men or women that you meet for the first time about their shame and fears and what does it take from the facilitator?
One colleague told us, how she had to interview abused women and the interviews would regularly end with both of them crying – she felt like she was not being professional. Another colleague said that she just wouldn’t feel comfortable, asking people such personal questions and intruding in their lifes. We went on thinking about the right balance: If your interview partners don’t feel that you open your heart to them, they will feel like you are cold and not tell you anything of value. On the other hand, if you take their stories so personal that you can’t sleep at night, your job will eat you up and this will not necessarily turn you into a better researcher or facilitator.
How do professionals learn the right balance between empathy and professionalism? Psychotherapists are explicitly trained in this through their education. In our professions on the other hand I have the feeling people much prefer talking about methods than about soft skills and approach these issues with the attitude of: Either you are a natural – or not.
Sure, you can’t learn soft skills the way you would learn statistics, but I also think it is possible to conciously develop them. What would that need? Maybe a more reflective attitude to our daily practice, a mentor or peer-support approach, where you can openly talk about your confusion, frustration or pain and see how you can learn by trying out doing things differently next time.
How do you learn to keep the right balance between closeness and distance?