Experts have warned “there is no quick fix” for improving empathy, as besieged Coalition MP Andrew Laming takes leave to undertake an empathy training course the government has ordered him to complete.
Psychologists from Monash University and the University of Western Australia have said that any meaningful behavioural change requires prolonged and “intense” therapy with a specially trained psychologist. “You can’t just walk into a workshop and come out with empathy” following a six-week course, they said, although this is the length Laming has suggested he hopes his will take.
Psychologists have also cautioned against undertaking empathy training with people who have not completed psychology degrees and short courses offered to clients who have been forced to take sessions. They argue that while a patient may be able to learn empathy principles, without the desire to improve themselves they will lack motivation to act differently even if they have been trained to recognise emotions in others.
The Guardian did not receive a response from Laming when asked to clarify the providers of his training course, but he has previously suggested he hopes to complete his training by the time parliament returns in the second week of May.
Laming announced he would take health leave from parliamentary work to undergo behavioural courses following a series of reports about his poor behaviour towards women, including an incident where he allegedly photographed a woman’s bottom.
While Laming has said he won’t recontest his Queensland seat of Bowman at the next federal election, Scott Morrison faced mounting pressure on Monday to sack him from the Coalition party room after the MP defended his online behaviour as having been “reinvented into harassment”.
Dr Sandy Stewart, a clinical psychology lecturer at Monash University, told the Guardian that while there is evidence that shows adults can enhance their empathy, successful patients “need to have a certain base level of empathy”.
“A person has to want to improve themselves, they have to have some sort of propensity to understand the other for it to be beneficial,” she said. “There has to be an engagement to want to open oneself to others’ experiences.
“I don’t think you can mandate someone to learn empathy, that’s an oxymoron,” Stewart said.
Stewart said “there is no quick fix” for learning empathy and that the patient should know the therapy is long-term when they begin.
“It would be very easy for someone to go through the sessions knowing it would be for a few weeks and breeze over the top. To get some traction, the sessions need to be intense and maintained for the skills to be retained,” she said.
She said training involves repeated sessions between patients and trained clinical psychologists over a long period of time, and includes self-reflection techniques to help them “imagine what the world might be like from within the other person’s experience”.
She said empathy is traditionally developed by adulthood because most children are exposed to adverse experiences and struggles that help them understand other peoples’ difficulties.
However she said sometimes exposure to difficulty in childhood can lead to them being “more self-focused and in some cases psychopathic”.
Dr Darja Kragt, a lecturer in UWA’s school of psychological science, said that while she believed initial empathy improvements could be achieved in shorter periods of time, changes in behaviour were dependent on a patient’s motivation for engaging with the therapy.
“Generally longer interventions are recommended, but it’s about their attitude in the way they want to interact with others.
“You can’t just walk into a workshop and come out with empathy,” she said, also warning that not all empathy training courses are the same, and that not all practitioners had studied psychology.
“What the psychological research does suggest is that the empathy training that does work has to focus on the emotional aspects, so identifying the emotion of other people and understanding them.
“They can learn this even if they were sent to the course, but importantly their motivation impacts how they implement what they’ve learned, how they act when they do recognise emotions in others,” Kragt said.
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