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,
Repair 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.