An Invitation to Empathy: Reflections on Delivering a Workshop with the Jobcentre

In September of this year, Fulfilling Lives South East ran a series of workshops with frontline staff from the Brighton and Hove Job Centres. The overarching goal was to help improve the service to better support people with multiple complex needs. By our definition, we mean those experiencing co-occurring mental ill-health, substance misuse, homelessness or threat of becoming homeless, domestic abuse, and those with history of repeat contact with the criminal justice system.

Challenging perceptions

At the beginning of the workshop, as an icebreaker, we asked the attendees what they would like to get out of the session.  If I was asked that question as a facilitator, and someone with lived experience, the answer I would like to have given would be something like:

“To try and get people to really understand how someone else’s human experience can be so utterly incomparable and even incomprehensible to their own.  That just because we may, for example, be sitting across from each other in the same physical space, we are not experiencing the same reality.  Objectively, the physical space, the words spoken, tone of voice, facial expressions and body language, are all expressed in just one way, yet they are interpreted and processed differently by the recipients or observers, sometimes wildly so.  Our eyes and ears, depending on where our attention is focused, collect some of this information, and translate it into thoughts, feelings, sensations and emotions, not necessarily in that order, and to different degrees. 

An innocuous glance could trigger a flood of neurochemicals in the recipient that signals danger.  Unexpectedly bumping into an acquaintance in the street could trigger the same sensation as narrowly avoiding being hit by a bus.  Getting a ‘D’ in an exam might induce the same feeling as losing a loved one.  The difficulty is conveying how extreme and unpredictable these variations can be as we all only have our own experience as a reference.  Anyone can score their emotional intensity on a scale of 1 – 10 but comparing this experience to somebody else’s doesn’t truly mean anything as it is so subjective.   One person’s ‘6’ could be the next person’s ‘60’.  Some people are experts at hiding their internal state from the world, until they are not.  Don’t assume that because someone appears calm on the outside, they are calm on the inside”.

Empathy and reserving judgement

I imagine it is difficult to empathise with people who experience the world in this way due to the vast gulf in experience. It can seem so improbable that relatively minor events, or even what can be considered non-events, can cause such intense, unpredictable reactions. If, understandably, someone can’t empathise, perhaps the next best thing is to reserve judgement of others and approach complexity with compassion and curiosity. It was apparent from the workshops that the JCP staff already embodied and practiced this. That’s not to say the lived experience perspective wasn’t impactful. One attendee was moved to tears, another reflected that these workshops should be delivered to all new work coaches, and others acknowledged that we shouldn’t make assumptions as we don’t know what could be going on beneath the surface. I do feel that we left an impression on most attendees, in one way or another. The depth of that impression will vary from person to person. I think we succeeded in illustrating some of the difficulties that people with multiple complex needs can face, and how these challenges came to be.

Hearing something once often doesn’t result in permanent change.  Ingrained beliefs and habits change through repeated exposure to new behaviours and ideas.  The Brighton Job Centre team seem committed to an organisational culture of compassion and understanding, which is a great environment for the Fulfilling Lives ethos to flourish.

Written by a Fulfilling Lives South East Project Consultant

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