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Understanding The Concept Of Empathy

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Hoffman (1984) defined empathy as the “cognitive awareness of another person’s internal states (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, intentions) and the vicarious affective response to another person” (p. 103). This definition explains empathy as a multidimensional construct referring to it as a cognitive phenomenon, while also recognising the affective implications of empathy. In support of the multidimensional approach and to further expand, Morse et al. (1992) divided empathy into four various components; emotive (vicarious response), moral (internal motivation to empathize), cognitive and behavioural. (SJ White).

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As the cognitive component of empathy involves understanding or apprehending the other individual’s response, it is from this perspective that empathy is considered as a highly important and influential dimension of moral reasoning (Hanson & Mullis, 1985). Of the four identified components of empathy, White concluded (SJ White) that only the behavioural component, described as the communication skills displayed by the empathizer, can be observed and measured objectively. White also claims the concentration of researchers on the behavioural component of empathy continues to present problems in attempting to identify measurements tools to empirically analyse the concept. In xxx Sulzer et al. performed a systematic review to learn how empathy is conceptualised, specifically in medical education research, by examining how researchers define the central construct of empathy and what they choose to measure. Interestingly, among the 109 studies that met their search criteria, 20% failed to define the central construct of empathy at all. (SJ White) Their study concluded to suggest that future research should follow the lead of basic scientific researches which conceptualises empathy as relational – a relationship between a subject and an object – rather than as a personal quality that may be modified wholesale through appropriate training. (SJ White)Likewise, and in the context of the client therapist relationship, Blackstone (2007) describes empathy as “the willingness and ability to view the world through the client’s eyes”. In a favourable client therapist relationship, the therapist comes to sense the feelings and meanings experienced by the client and communicates this understanding to the client.

The therapist does this by reflecting back to the client what he/ she is communicating – perhaps by re-phrasing something the client has just said in a way that captures the meaning and emotion involved. (Passer & Smith 4th Edition, 2008)Interestingly, the results of a meta-analysis carried out by Eisenberg and Lennon (1983) demonstrate a significant sex difference in self report of empathy with females obtaining higher empathy scores. Many studies support the hypothesis that females tend to be significantly more empathic than males (Feshback & Roe 1968, Mehrabian & Epstein 1972, Barnett et al, 1980). In conclusion, while there are many available definitions of empathy and an associated abundance of research relating to this concept, it is evident from the above that empathy is a complex concept and consideration must be allowed for the contect In which it is being described / discussed.

15 Jun 2020

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