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?

2 Responses

  1. Hi Eva,
    your post echos in my mind as it bounces against a similar dilemma I always face as an educator: feedback. The right balance between closeness and distance, and the reflexion on how to develop a sensitivity for it, to me is very similar to the sensitivity you have to develop as an educator/trainer to gauge the right mix of positive and negative feedback (positive and negative feedback as in evaluation, not in cybernetics terms) to give to your learners/trainees.
    In my experience, it’s a fine and well timed mix of challenge & support that can serve as an effective motivator for learning. One has to constantly question what is the psychological state of the learner you are facing in terms of self-confidence and self-efficacy and then dose your feedback accordingly. This is not to say that if s/he feels down you have to compassionately cheer her/him up and “censure” negative feedback, or viceversa, drag her/him down if he feels good, nor to always compensate positive and negative feedback so that the result will be a painless mildly negative or positive average, as I often hear (the sandwich rule). It’s trickier than this, and my guess would be that we don’t have to fear emotions as we are led to do in our brainy, so-called western culture. Rather we should accept that even feeling bad, crying, having a hard time to fall asleep, in a word, suffer, it is not inherently negative as long as it is a temporary condition and not a chronic one. So my point is that to me professionalism, as you describe it, is about allowing oneself and others to experience strong feelings, “lean forward over the void”, while developing the capacity to get back to a balance, and most likely a new one.

  2. Dear Paolo,
    I like your picture of “leaning forward over the void” and I know that often it’s the situations with strong emotions and not those when you are trapped between two limp slices of white bread (sandwich) where you learn most and are most likely to not forget the lesson.

    Thanks for the encouraging reflections.

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