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Listening to Clients' Stories with Empathy

Each one of us has stories to tell. Our lives are rich with lessons of love and loss; of hopes and fears; of regrets over things we should or should not have done; and of dreams which we hold in our hearts that push us to try and live for another day.

As individuals, we may have gone through similar life events, but our beliefs, values, worldviews, culture, and past experiences shape our perceptions of these events. Our stories differ from the rest. And, in order for our stories to be told, there must be someone willing and ready to listen, to give us the time and attention to hear our thoughts and our version of the events that had unfolded before us. We want others to appreciate our stories, not to judge the choices we have made. And so, we become more discerning of who we tell our stories to.

How Much Have We Listened?

As social workers, we have been taught and trained to listen. We practiced our listening skills, role-played, and even received supervision. We think we have mastered the skills enough to engage our clients and embark on helping relationships. Still, I wonder, how many of us have reduced our listening to just focussing on getting information to make an assessment of the client's circumstances? Are we merely listening so that we could work out goals and interventions for our clients to resolve whatever it is that is causing dysfunctionality in their lives?

Some social workers might argue that on their part, they have diligently used empathic responding, paraphrasing, and reflection of feelings to show to their clients that they are really listening with empathy. In so doing, they have tried to understand what the clients are going through.

Yet, how much have we really listened to appreciate the stories that our clients are telling us? When clients tell us that they wished their children could receive extra tuition, what are they really saying? Are they telling us that they feel inadequate as parents to be of help to their children; that they regret not being more studious when they were younger, that if they had been given that opportunity back then life would have been different for them now?

When clients reminisce about growing up poor, witnessing family violence, going through parental divorce, experiencing being bullied, drifting into delinquency, losing a job, getting into debt, being incarcerated, overcoming struggles after struggles; what do we really hear?

Do we hear resilience and strengths? Do we hear gratitude or remorse? How do we appreciate the stories they tell us?

Appreciating Clients' Stories

For a start, we need to appreciate the historical context of their stories - what was the environment like back then? What were the social and cultural influences? For example, while growing up before the advent of computers and the internet, bullying may be more physical and situational as compared to the extent of cyberbullying that our teens are going through today. So, while the hurt and harm may appear similar, social workers could also appreciate that the social support, the involvement of teachers and the school system, and parental sensitivities and expectations were different then as compared to the present, resulting in different ways of dealing with the issues at different time periods. This will also colour the clients' perception of the present problems.

In another example, women who experienced spousal abuse in the past may share with us the stigma of having to be a single parent had they chosen to walk out of the marriage. We might think that the stigma is the same presently. Yet, the challenges of single parenthood in the past were in the context of a different political, social, economic, and technological environment.

The constraints of the environment, belief systems, and opportunities limit one's choices and affect one's coping behaviour. The stories were set in different scenes. Hence, social workers need to practice listening with empathy beyond just understanding what is being said. It is about appreciating the context of how the stories unfold.

When we begin to appreciate the stories that our clients are telling us, we can begin to see a more holistic picture of the clients' lives.

Empowering with Empathy

The way we listened to our clients' stories will affect how we empower our clients as well. For some clients, empowering cannot be just helping them to rehearse new behaviour, role-play conversations, or handing out contact numbers and addresses of resources and services for clients to call or visit.

When we appreciate the context of their stories, we may begin to see that some clients will need time to unlearn and relearn their coping strategies, rebuild their self-esteem and confidence, or perhaps, may need someone to journey beside them, before they feel empowered enough to take the step towards change.

While the goal of social work is to empower clients to be able to stand up for their rights and access the resources that they need to overcome their challenges, we will need to do this with empathy. When we truly listened to their stories, we can then begin to appreciate how much of the political, psychological, social, and cultural barriers that they have to overcome before they can achieve empowerment.

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