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Culture of Empathy Builder: Karen Gerdes


Karen Gerdes & Edwin Rutsch: Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy

 Karen E. Gerdes is an Associate Professor in the School of Social work at Arizona State University at the Downtown Campus.  She earned a PhD in Social Work from Florida State University.  Her research interests include empathy, empathy measurement, poverty, conation and issues related to Latino populations


Karen Gerdes & Edwin Rutsch: Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy

 (Thank you Marcelle Kors for this transcription!)


Karen Gerdes and Edwin Rutsch: Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy


"We propose that a targeted and structured explication of empathy is a useful, if not essential, foundation for social work theory and practice. We outline a social work framework for empathy, one that is rooted in an interdisciplinary context, emphasizes recent findings in the field of social cognitive neuroscience, and yet is embedded in a social work context..., students can learn to use their knowledge, values, and skills, informed by empathy, to take empathic action consciously."


00:00 Introduction

* Associate Professor, School of Social Work, Arizona State University

* Research interests are empathy and empathy measurements

* At Arizona State for 16 years. Last sabbatical in 2007 read the social cognitive
neuroscience literature on empathy. Got excited about the four neural networks
that they had observed and identified. Went through all her social work academic
career as student and professor, without hearing anyone talking about empathy in
this way. So how can we apply this in the classroom, how do we bring to a
conscience awareness the aspect-sharing component and teach the three cognitive
components, perspective taking, emotion regulation and self/other awareness.

* Now thinking about a new area, about how to teach and cultivate empathy in the
classroom, apply it to Social Work

02:28 Article: ‘Teaching Empathy, a Framework rooted in social cognitive
neuroscience and social justice”

* In social work, up to now, never connected the emotion regulation piece with
empathy so need to teach student that there is this automatic unconscious
mirroring aspect. If you are with a client who is sad and you start to feel sad this
feeling can overwhelm you unless you know how to regulate that emotion. The
other piece is that this sadness, this mirroring, happens automatically and
unconsciously. Now at least, they are aware of the process – “I am mirroring what
the client is feeling. I need to keep that boundary there but at the same time, try to
understand what is behind the client’s anger/sadness”.

* Importance of emotion regulation. Example is single parent with children client.
Parent may be capable of mirroring and therefore knowing when their baby is
frustrated. But what they don’t know is that they are absorbing that emotion.
Then if they can’t separate baby’s frustration from their own, and they don’t have
emotion regulation, that is when they become frustrated and consequently at risk
for abusive behaviour to stop the child’s frustration when in reality, they are trying
to stop their own frustration.

* Importance of self-soothing when a Social Worker is working with clients who are
angry or depressed or frustrated.

* So in teaching social work, it’s important to talk about empathy, what it is, how is
it experienced, how recognize it - by bringing it to a conscious awareness, then
start to engage in specific tools to help cultivate it, such as perspective training.

* For perspective taking: you need to have information – for example,. immigration.
There’s a punishing, condescending way of talking about it in the public
discourse. A lot of this comes from a lack of information as to why Mexicans
want to come to America. All kinds of ‘Boogieman’ stories about this -Want our
jobs, they’re all criminals, and want to kill us. People respond to this with fear and
this fear overrides any natural empathy that would otherwise be there. So
perspective-taking is very cognitive and is about giving people information to
provide a context for social problems and issues so people can understand them

07:33 How are you defining empathy?

* I like the Social cognitive neuroscientists’ definition - an induction process where
our bodies and minds are taking in information at rapid speed (millisecond time
scale), processing this information partly at an unconscious level, the mirroring and
aspect-sharing piece, and part of it is cognitive. The end result of this process is
that you can basically understand the feelings, emotions, intentions and maybe
even sometimes the thoughts of the other person where you’re not just seeing the
world as they see it but also feeling the world as they feel it. And it’s all
happening very rapidly.

* The more skills our students have, especially those cognitive ones that we can
actually work on like perspective taking and emotion regulation, the more fluid
that process will be and the more empathy you will have.

09:00 The four part model of empathy

1. Self empathy, self awareness, self knowledge, sensory awareness in yourself

2. Mirrored/emotional empathy based on mirror neurons, we can mirror others.

3. Imaginative, perspective taking cognitive empathy. Take the point of view of
someone else.

4. Empathic action

* Fourth level is important in social work. Once students have experience of
empathy, what do you do with it, how do you serve someone. You don’t want to
transform this into pity or even sympathy. You don’t want to enable your clients.
You want to keep it open, how do I empower my client? If I have empathy, I
better see the world as my client sees it. It might give me some insight into better
how to facilitate the client’s own empowerment. Social workers need to be careful
not to enable their client and not to do for them, things that they should be doing
for themselves.

11:29 Importance of Self-empathy.

* It’s key because those who are self-aware about their own feelings and thoughts
are quicker to learn to separate those from the ones they are picking up from
someone else.

* Self empathy improves ability to articulate about empathy and feelings. It gives
you a vocabulary.

* One block to empathy is that some people have mentioned that you can lose
yourself in empathy. They don’t know who they are and who the other is. That is
why self-awareness is important. Being able to have a boundary and being able to
know you can let someone have their pain and you don’t have to take it on, you
can step into it for a few seconds to feel it and appreciate it, but then step back
out of it to maintain your empathy otherwise you get burned out.

* There is a real gap with respect to self-awareness. There seems to be no education
to provide children with these skills. Self-empathy and knowledge is crucial to
understanding each other and to benefit from the empathy that we feel for each

* Mindfulness and how critical it is to emotion regulation. A lot of kids don’t have
self-soothing behaviour, how to articulate or manage their emotions and
behaviour. There is a real lack of this kind of training in the K-12 education
system. It’s probably because it is seen as ‘New Age’. The amount of science and
research now backing up how useful this is to us, it is really astonishing.

16:51 A self-report for empathy

* The one in use now was created in 1980 and it’s not very effective. It’s more a
measure of sympathy and only a small perspective-taking part of empathy, In
Social Work you really need something to show interventions are actually in fact
cultivating empathy. After this step, then I will be more involved in intervention
at the K to 12 level taking building blocks and skills into those classrooms
Finding ways to effectively measure empathy.

* Created with colleagues, an Empathy Assessment Index. It’s being tested for
validity and reliability. Currently writing a study comparing a group of Social
Work professionals with populations known for empathy deficits such as sex
offenders, domestic violence perpetrators. The test held up well in comparing
those groups. Our index is looking solid. It could maybe replace the current
Interpersonal Reactivity Index. Our index is more informed by the current social
cognitive neuroscience.
Aspect Sharing/Mirror Empathy/An empathy curriculum

* Very coherent and observable idea that there are 4 neural networks in our brain
that help us experience empathy. We need to make sure that all four are working,
and like any muscle, we need to work the networks, build them, and cultivate
them. Teach them how to regulate emotions, take someone else’s perspective,
identify self/other boundaries and help understand that mirrored empathy
happens: an emotion contagion to their job.

* Next step to measurement will be working on a curriculum, first for Social Work
students, working on mindfulness and other techniques that can help build
cognitive skills. After that, how do we make this more age-appropriate,
particularly for K to 12 groups?

23:45 Teaching empathy and building a culture of empathy

* Social Work curriculum will be transferrable to other disciplines such as
counselling, nursing, psychology. Protective factor is important. Nurses and Social
Workers are susceptible to compassion fatigue and burnout. They are highly
sensitive and empathic. They need to not be overwhelmed to have a sustainable

* We need a culture of empathy. The skills Social Workers learn would be
transferrable to their clients. Could teach/inform clients on how empathy is
working on them with respect to other family members. When one family member
gets frustrated and angry, they all step into this dark place, and how to stop it
from happening. Also how to talk to each other differently, take the other’s

* The domino effect: it spreads. The more people that have these skills, the more
empathy is understood, modelled, worked, taught, in the professions, the home, at
school, the workplace the more we will have this culture of empathy.

27:30 How do we bring the empathy conversation into the national dialogue?

* We seem to be hearing the word empathy more in the public since Obama used it
in his campaigning. Also talk of candidates having an ‘empathy gap’. But when
media talks about it, there are no explanations of the word. Could be more
education going on around these conversations. The word is used very loosely.

* Senate debates about Obama’s Supreme Court Justice Nomination: the word
empathy was used around 500 times during the senate debates. You can see the
lack of understanding of the word. It’s apparent that many use the word as
synonymous with sympathy. Many felt empathy was inappropriate for a judge.
But empathy is the core of the human contract. How can you do the job without
empathy? Still a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation. This would make a
great study! To look at the content of the debates for the use of the word
empathy, and the contexts of the use. Would be interesting for US Congress to
have a hearing on what is empathy?

* Change the focus. Two parties are talking past each other and trying to win debate
points. Focus is not on the people that need assistance or country’s problems.
Need to stop the ‘debate habit’. Focus on the problem and challenge from a values
place, where we listen and try to understand each other.

* How we define the problem often determines how we decide to tackle the
problem. For example, if we define poverty as a moral failing, then the policies we
create are attempts to make people more moral instead of fixing a social,
economic, education, health system that seems to be out of balance. So maybe
what we need to do is find out how the various groups are defining the same
problem and then find some common ground in those definitions. Right now this
isn’t happening – each side just wants to make their point and be right.

* Maybe educating politicians about empathy might be a good answer. A lot of
people see empathy as a ‘touchy-feely’ kind of thing but it’s not. Its real science.
Sympathy versus empathy

* Sympathy or pity leads us to give a homeless person a dollar. Empathy on the
other hand, makes us ask the harder questions about what causes homelessness,
what can we do to make sure that fewer people are homeless? This is where
empathic action takes us, to empowerment.

* Often people think that empathic action is just sympathy and that all Social
Workers want to do is give people handouts. In fact that’s not what we want to
do. We want to figure out ways to create jobs so they can work and earn a living
wage. This is a harder conversation to have than a handout is.

* Until we have more empathy we’re probably going to keep walking away from
those difficult conversations.

40:27 Empathy in Social Work at Arizona State

* We are pioneers in the sense that we are using the Social Cognitive Framework.
We are not necessarily pioneers in empathy. It has been a part of Social Work
profession for a long time. Throughout my career for many years, no one had ever
framed empathy in such a concrete way that you could break it down and
understand how to cultivate it. That’s what we are trying to pioneer – break it
down more into the ways that our brain is processing this information and then
strengthen those parts of the brain through mindfulness techniques, conversations
and education where we learn about the social contexts of people’s situations and
problems. It is exciting and rejuvenating.


A mile in their shoes: understanding empathy by ALLIE NICODEMO
"A lot of times, that story never gets told,” says Karen Gerdes, a social worker at ASU. She is interested in empathy, which is the ability to perceive the world from other people’s points of view and to feel what they are feeling.

Empathy is a complex emotion because it involves both unconscious, involuntary responses and conscious, cognitive processes. For example, suppose you’ve had a traumatic experience, like losing a loved one."

Panel 003-A: How Can We Build a Culture of Empathy?


2012-02-16 - A mile in their shoes: understanding empathy

"The human brain evolved to ensure our survival. One example of that survival instinct is our sense of competition – historically, it’s part of what drives us to wage wars over power and resources. But an equally powerful survival tactic is our ability to love and cooperate with others.

“A lot of times, that story never gets told,” says Karen Gerdes, a social worker at ASU. She is interested in empathy, which is the ability to perceive the world from other people’s points of view and to feel what they are feeling. Empathy is a complex emotion because it involves both unconscious, involuntary responses and conscious, cognitive processes. For example, suppose you’ve had a traumatic experience, like losing a loved one."

A mile in their shoes: understanding empathy
"Empathy is a relatively new word, only having come about in the 20th century. Karen Gerdes, a social worker at ASU, explains what empathy is, how to measure it and how we can develop it to improve our quality of life and our relationships"

Articles on Empathy

Developing the Social Empathy Index: An Exploratory Factor Analysis
"Abstract: Social empathy, the ability to understand people from different socioeconomic classes and racial/ethnic backgrounds, with insight into the context of institutionalized inequalities and disparities, can inspire positive societal change and promote social wellbeing. The value of teaching social empathy and creating interventions that promote social empathy is enhanced by the ability to measure and assess it. This article provides a validation of the Social Empathy Index, a tool that practitioners can easily use to assess individuals’ levels of interpersonal and social empathy. An exploratory factor analysis was used to validate the instrument and confirm the conceptual model for social empathy"

A Social Work Model for Empathy
"Abstract: This article presents a social work model of empathy that reflects the latest interdisciplinary research findings on empathy. The model reflects the social work commitment to social justice. The three model components are: 1) the affective response to another’s emotions and actions; 2) the cognitive processing of one’s affective response and the other person’s perspective; and 3) the conscious decision-making to take empathic action. Mirrored affective responses are involuntary, while cognitive processing and conscious decision-making are voluntary. The affective component requires healthy, neural pathways to function appropriately and accurately. The cognitive aspects of perspective-taking, self-awareness, and emotion regulation can be practiced and cultivated, particularly through the use of mindfulness techniques. Empathic action requires that we move beyond affective responses and cognitive processing toward utilizing social work values and knowledge to inform our actions. By introducing the proposed model of empathy, we hope it will serve as a catalyst for discussion and future research and development of the model."


Benefits of Empathy
The list of studies in social work mentioning the importance of empathy is  significant.

  • studies on the importance of practitioner-to-client empathy would fill  several volumes. Examples include

    • Berg, Raminani, Greer, Harwood & Safren (2008)

    • Forrester, Kershaw, Moss & Hughes (2007);

    • Green & Christensen (2006);

    • Mishara et al. (2007); and

    • Sale, Bellamy, Springer & Wang (2008)].

  • While empathy is essential to an effective client-worker relationship, it is also crucial that we help populations such as at risk parents, partners and sex offenders to develop and cultivate empathy

    • (Curtner-Smith et al., 2006,

    •  Busby & Gardner, 2008;

    • Hunter, Figueredo, Becker & Malamuth, 2007;

    •  Waldinger, Schultz, Hauser, Allen & Crowell 2004).

  • Parental empathy has been cited as crucial for raising healthy children (Curtner-Smith et al., 2006)

  • Partner empathy is a key element in satisfying relationships (Busby & Gardner, 2008; Waldinger et al., 2004).

  • Empathy is one of the core elements of healthy relationships at every level,



Importance of empathy for social work practice: integrating new science.
Elizabeth A. Segal, M. Alex Wagaman, Karen Gerdes

  • "Research demonstrates that empathy is an important tool for positive therapeutic intervention (Watson, 2002).

  • Clients experiencing empathy through treatment by others inhibits antisocial behavior in children and adolescents (Eisenberg, Spinard, & Sadovsky, 2005; Hoffman, 2000). Empathy inhibits aggression toward others (Weisner & Silbereisen, 2003)

  • and promotes healthy personal development (Hoffman, 2001).

  • The lack of empathy is correlated with bullying, aggressive behavior, violent crime, and sexual offending (Gini, Albieri, Benelli, & Altoe, 2008; Joliffe & Farrington, 2004; Loper, Hoffschmidt, & Ash, 2001; Sams & Truscott, 2004). 

  • A practitioner's own level of empathy is correlated with positive client outcomes (Forrester, Kershaw, Moss, & Hughes, 2008).

  •  Jensen, Weersing, Hoagwood, and Goldman (2005) completed a review of 52 child psychotherapy treatment studies and concluded that therapist empathy, attention, and positive regard are essential to effective outcomes.

  • Forrester et al. (2008) found that empathy is central to effective communication in child protection situations. Empathy is critical to both practitioner and client outcomes. "