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Empathy – Walking A Mile In Someone Else’s Moccasins

Empathy is critical in our ability to work with clients and there is a saying in relation to this concept that is often quoted which is “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins. The quote is often attributed to various Native American tribes, but it comes from a poem written by Mary T. Lathrap in 1895. The original title was Judge Softly. If you wish to read the poem use the following link (or just google it).

I was quite surprised when I was training when the teacher asked us to identify our prejudices and what sort of clients would we find it difficult to work with. We all like to think that we don’t have prejudices but is that realistic? Also, is it possible to not make judgements at some, possibly, unconscious level. This is probably a subject for supervision as being truthful and honest in another “non-judgemental” environment is important when reflecting on our own practice. Have you ever experienced a situation where a client says something like “You don’t think I should do that, do you?’ When you examine your own thoughts you might consider, did I think that even though I certainly didn’t express it? It’s quite possible you didn’t and your client is projecting something you didn’t even think onto you but it’s still worth asking the question.

We can find ourselves in difficult, even troubling situations sometimes. One of my colleagues has undertaken a considerable amount of work within prison environments and describes how they have worked with individuals who have committed crimes we are all likely to find abhorrent. My colleague’s belief is that, whilst not condoning what someone has done it is crucial not to judge the client by their crime. When walking in other people’s shoes we might well find we experience unexpected feelings or emotions, we may feel a great sadness or maybe frustration. The practice is not just about gaining rational understanding, it is about experiencing what it is like for someone else.

Judgements can also take different forms, for example we might believe we know what someone’s prime concern is or the action that could help someone find a solution to their difficulties. Unless we walk in the other person’s shoes we are potentially invading what should be the client’s domain.

Can we ever truly walk in someone else’s shoes? We can give it a go but we may need to recognise that we are always perceiving from our own values, beliefs and experiences even when we are aiming to truly understand another person’s model of the world. If we do this with integrity and with genuine concern it is perhaps the closest we can get to understanding someone else.

We make judgements in life all the time, judgements about people, their beliefs and their actions. if we accept this we can recognise how we can avoid making judgements when working with clients and live for a while in their model of the world.

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