Jamie Moran, LCSW, CGP
Group training & education | Individual & couples counseling across genders 
Gay men's & gay & bisexual men's psychotherapy groups 

 

Spring ENewsletter 2017 

Greetings and well wishes as we head into Spring! As I write this while in between sessions at the annual American Group Therapy Conference in New York City, there is such positive and exciting energy shared by other group leaders who are passionate and proficient in leading groups. I'm glad to bring a bit of that energy to you. My last newsletter was intended to be part one of a series on process group leadership. However it became clear the subject was far too large to narrow into three parts so instead I will be focusing on individual topics at a time. The current edition highlights empathic failure in group. I will suggest approaches to recognize its significance, primarily to further group goals, make connections with individual members and deepen the experience of members in a group. Please note at the end of the newsletter, my current group offerings are listed. Thanks as always for reading and sharing this newsletter. Stay tuned for future articles and workshops!


Warm Regards, 
Jamie Moran, LCSW, CGP
 
  
Working with Empathic Failure
In group, a lack of empathic understanding occurs regularly, and we call this empathic failure. Simply put, empathic failure is a lack of empathy in response to a share, a dialogue or an exchange meant for teaching something about the person(s) speaking. This can be intentional or not. If one considers important relationships in life, including close friendships, spouses, and family members, most people will be able to identify empathic failures that have taken place.  
 
A common response when empathic failure is identified is defensiveness, a desire to explain, and at times to blame the person for not explaining themself well. None of these responses in life or in group are particularly helpful. The following three points will highlight a healthy and intimate approach for group leaders that can also serve as a model for group members in working with empathic failure.
 
1)  Educate group members by defining empathic failure and its related experience, repairRepair takes place through additional exploration and dialogue about the empathic failure that ultimately results in the person expressing/feeling they have been understood by the group member(s)/leader. This might also be termed a resolution. Explain that empathic failure is NOT avoidable and occurs in many if not most relationships. It is best dealt with by recognizing the commonality and subsequently working through the impact. Some group members will helpfully integrate the terms (empathic failure and empathic repair) into their group lexicon.
 
A related concept is being dropped. This occurs in unstructured groups when someone sharing an experience is not fully finished, but the group dialogue has moved away from them. A leader (or a group member) might say, "Did we drop you a few minutes ago?"  Or, "Were you finished?"  Most unstructured psychotherapy groups have so much material to work with, being dropped, like empathic failure, is bound to occur. The group leader can show their awareness and care by periodically checking in with members, especially with those who may be most vulnerable to being dropped.
 
2)  Train group members, as well as yourself, to avoid if possible the three pitfalls mentioned above in response to empathic failure: being defensive, a desire to explain in the moment, and blaming the original communicator. Healthy responses include hearing what actually happened (from the group member's perspective), the emotions experienced (often frustration, sadness, disappointment and anger), and what is familiar about the experience (often a current life experience or spans back to earlier memories such as being the overlooked child). At a later point an explanation from the person who enacted the empathic failure may or may not be helpful. The group leader promotes curiosity and openness to hear critical feedback as well as to learn more about the group member in question. 
 
3)  Ask the group member who experienced the empathic failure what repair would be helpful. Some group members will know right away; others may need to think about it. Examples might include a) an apology (not always a repair as apologies aren't always experienced as honest or believable); b) a second chance to hear and understand the group member; c) picking someone in group who is particularly understanding of this group member and asking for their help in the repair. This can make a big difference and it is possible this group member may explain things better than the group leader could about the member who has experienced the failure; and d) an idea about what this group member may like in the future.  
 
This may be particularly important if the group leader is responsible for the empathic failure. An example of a response from a group member illustrates this process: "It feels to me that you, Jamie, pay attention to me the least in group. I'm feeling ignored and not important in this group, and I want to be valued and seen more regularly." An appropriate response would be to acknowledge these statements and feelings and periodically ask the group member, "How am I doing in paying better attention to you?"  It would be helpful for the group leader to check in in this fashion during the current session or the next session. In this vignette there may be other clinical themes playing out, such as induced feelings, which I will describe further in a future newsletter.
 
Paying attention and providing a process around empathic failure and repair builds trust in the group. It often allows for poignant exploration that supports members to feel more connected with each other as well as strengthening their continued membership in the group. 

 Group Openings
MENLO PARK | Gay & Bisexual Men's Psychotherapy Groups
Monday 6:15-7:45pm | OPENINGS
Monday 8:00-9:30pm | OPENINGS

SAN FRANCISCO | Gay Men's Psychotherapy Groups
Tuesday 5:50-7:20pm FULL
Tuesday 7:30-9:00pm OPENINGS
Wednesday 5:45-7:15pm FULL
Wednesday 7:30-9:00pm FULL
 
Participation in groups involves an interview and screening process. Please contact me at jammoran@aol.com or 415.552.9408. 

  

Group circle 

 
Jamie Moran, LCSW, CGP
Psychotherapy and Consultation
Licensed Clinical Social Worker #14447
Certified Group Psychotherapist #42559
Continuing Education Provider through CAMFT, #61395
 
425 Gough Street, San Francisco, CA 94102  
661 Live Oak Avenue, Menlo Park, CA 94025  

 




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