Monday, January 2, 2012

Knowledge > Empathy




Within the speech therapy community, there is a wing that actively promotes the virtue of empathy. That is, therapists are told the value of empathizing with their clients. I think it is reasonable to say that the empathy-based practice is being contrasted to the 'speech correction' emphasis of the fluency shaping school of stutter therapy. So the empathy-based practice is rooted in a primary concern for the psycho-social elements of stutter, while the fluency shaping seeks to eliminate all stuttering, and in doing so, eliminate the cause of any psycho-social disturbance.

Now speech therapy is a helping profession, and in such fields it is always good for the clinician to be a people person. If one is going to help people deal with their problems, a misanthropic or uncaring personality is going to struggle to enjoy the work. I am, however, wary of a special emphasis being put on empathy.

Empathy is not a (cognitive) understanding of the feelings of others. Empathy is the ability to recognize the feelings of others, and to feel with them. In five minutes, I can tell anyone in dramatic terms what it is like to be a stutterer. I can share the usual suspects of the stutterer's inner life; the childhood traumas, the self-doubt, etc. And once I tell them, they know what they need to know. I have no interest in their 'feeling my pain,' although I do see the value in their understanding it. And that understanding is not empathy.

If I went to a speech therapist, I would want her/him to know what works and what doesn't. I would want them to be able to personalize their particular method of therapy to fit my situation. And I would want them to know what to expect from me as I attempt to follow their direction. In other words, I would want knowledge and experience. I would not want hugs, of any other such touchy-feely-ism. My problem is not a lack of love - my problem is a speech pathology. That's why they're called speech pathologists, no?

The affective aspects of stutter play a huge role in the condition. Stutter is a pathology of speech communication that has a major role in social relations and in personal identity. Put simply, being a stutterer is a bitch. But I would far rather have a therapist totally lacking in empathy, but with a deep understanding of both the objective and subjective experience of stutter, than a deeply empathetic clinician who followed a therapeutic script without understanding of the condition.

There may be times when it is advantageous for therapists to play the 'I feel your pain' card, but that could be done based on the practical value of doing so, without any particular empathy-based feelings. What is needed, in such cases, is not a sharing of feelings, but an understanding of how the client's feelings are getting in the way of therapeutic progress.

I have no doubt that the negative baggage we stutterers carry is the single greatest barrier to long-term success in therapy. My efforts on this blog have been focused almost entirely on stutter as a pathology of speech, in reaction to the non-speech emphasis I've found so often in discussions of stutter. That does not mean that I don't see value in understanding and coming to grips with the affective, reactive elements of the condition. But I see no reason to raise empathy to anything beyond a starting point for those in the helping professions.

Knowledge is power; empathy is not. Ultimately, there is something wrong with a person who stutter, and that something needs to be dealt with as far as is possible. Doing so requires understanding on the part of the therapist and the client as well. The more stutterers understand of their condition, and how they react to it, the less you will see anything to be empathetic about.

1 comment:

  1. You write: "Within the speech therapy community, there is a wing that actively promotes the virtue of empathy. . . . I think it is reasonable to say that the empathy-based practice is being contrasted to the 'speech correction' emphasis of the fluency shaping school of stutter therapy."

    I wonder whether you're putting up a straw man. Are there really therapists who emphasize empathy and neglect speech-specific issues? That's what you seem to be implying. Maybe there are a few, but I think that mainstream speech therapy nowadays focuses on multiple aspects: support and understanding (in part facilitated by the therapist's empathy), and also speech-specific issues.

    Different patients are different and not everyone is helped by the same methods. You've said that "I would not want hugs, of any other such touchy-feely-ism. My problem is not a lack of love". OK, that's you. But for some people, such touchy-feely-ism may be helpful as one component of the therapy.

    Empathy can be a useful tool for a speech therapist and shouldn't be neglected, as long as it's not the primary tool.

    ReplyDelete