A Place to Talk and SGA host inaugural speaker series about empathy

By AASHNA SUNDESHA | December 7, 2018

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COURTESY OF AASHNA SUNDESHA Speakers at the “Dimensions of Connection” event approached empathy from different angles.

A Place to Talk (APTT), a student-run peer listening service, and the Student Government Association (SGA) hosted the “Dimensions of Connection” speaker event in Hodson Hall on Saturday. The event focused on the importance of empathy and human connection in everyday interactions.

Speakers at the event included Psychology Lecturer Jeff Bowen, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Professor Dr. James Harris and Children’s Center Child Life Specialist Caroline Potter.

Harris, who also serves as director of the Developmental Neuropsychiatry Clinic, focused on why people today seem less connected to each other. He discussed a case study during which an 11-year-old girl was hit by a car, and none of the cars passing by stopped to help except for a family with a girl of around the same age in their own car.

He explained that most of the people driving by displayed the bystander effect and were less likely to offer help when there were other people around who they thought would help. He specifically highlighted the differences between empathy and compassion.

“The family that stopped showed compassion, and compassion is what we need,” Harris said. “Empathy is not always positive; we have people who are psychopaths who show empathy.”

Questioning Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest, Harris introduced the idea of survival of the kindest instead. He emphasized the importance of prosocial behavior, a type of behavior through which humans work toward helping each other with the goal of eventually helping society as a whole.

“What we should think about when we think about connection is to think about compassion,” he said.

Potter, the next speaker, drew from her own experiences working at the pediatric intensive care unit. Her remarks focused on empathy and connection in hospitals. 

Elaborating on Harris’ comparison of compassion and empathy, Potter explained that people often don’t express their own emotions but instead reflect the compassion that they feel from external sources. Empathy, for her, is not only necessary for her job, but also enhances her work.

“In order to be effective, I really have to be accepted by patients and families as a supportive person through their hospital stay,” she said, “Part of that is building rapport and connection — that social interaction that builds positive connections between people.”

She explained that regardless of how long a patient was going to stay in the hospital and how intensive the procedure of which they were about to undergo, it was important to connect with them and provide a basic understanding of what was going to happen.

“We have to establish some kind of connection with them,” she said. “Respect that this is happening to their body. By telling them the truth, you are increasing the predictability of what’s going to happen, even if it might be hard. Focus on how they cope and give them tools to do so,” she said.

Potter also elaborated on empathy from a professional standpoint and acknowledged that while a doctor can understand a patient’s perspective, they cannot grasp the full experience of the patient’s life. 

“In order to maintain my professional role, there really are some limitations to how much I can be using empathy as my main mode of connecting with others,” she said.

Potter ended by emphasizing the importance of practicing empathy and making human connections not only with patients but also with other colleagues. She explained that hardship and stress lead to different types of vulnerability, specifically citing the example of compassion fatigue — a type of secondary stress involving desensitization to other people’s stress.

“It is an extremely high-stress environment, and there is a high risk of burnout and compassion fatigue,” she said. “My strength in my job is the people that I work with.”

The final speaker, Psychology Lecturer Jeff Bowen, focused on personal and relationship well-being. He discussed his own research and how it can help understand human relations.

Bowen explained social support is not a “one-size-fits-all” concept. Instead, he said, there are well-documented differences that determine how social support is provided to individual recipients and dictate how to match support to recipients’ needs.

“Regardless of how those support transactions unfold, what tends to be more valuable is intimacy, feelings of trust and closeness — the interpersonal process model of intimacy,” he said.

He emphasized the importance of being sensitive to what a person might be struggling with when engaging in dialogue and trying to help them alleviate such tension.

“Having some sort of access for sensitivity to the person in distress’ mental state and using that somehow to support them and to show them that we’re there for them — that will hopefully result in them feeling appropriately responded to,” Bowen said.

Bowen simplified the process of empathy as that of getting on the same page as the opposite person. He explained that although expressing concern for the other and maintaining accuracy when discussing their experiences each may not be enough on their own, combining the two together can make an interaction more meaningful.

He introduced the idea of mimicry — that in a conversation, people may unintentionally copy each other’s actions and gestures. On the surface, he explained, this concept indicates that reproducing someone’s actions and gestures might be a signal that you are engaged in a conversation.

“Mimicry researchers often go a step further and say that actually it might signal that the two people are deriving or representing whatever it is that they are discussing in a similar manner. The mental structure that they’re applying to understanding this interaction is similar, is aligned,” he said.

Sophomore Benjamin Laurin, who attended the event, felt that although the general conversation around mental health isn’t as widespread as it should be, an event like this helped take a step in the right direction. 

APTT co-director Anna Koerner explained in an email to The News-Letter that though empathy and compassion are crucial topics in everyday life, they are often overlooked.

“By organizing a speaker event that is focused on these topics, we’re hoping to add to the discussion surrounding mental health with a fresh perspective,” she wrote. “We made it a point to invite speakers from different backgrounds to appeal to a larger audience — the speakers discussed this topic from social psychological, medicinal and neuroscientific perspectives.”

Andrew Hellinger, the other co-director of APTT, added that this was APTT’s first speaker series and explained the importance of starting more conversations around mental health at Hopkins.

“Making students aware of the importance of empathy is a crucial step in promoting better dialogues about mental health on campus,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Correction: The original version of this article stated Caroline Potter is a clinical oncology social worker. She is a child life specialist in the pediatric intensive care unit. The News-Letter regrets this error.

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