The ability to experience and demonstrate empathy is said to be key to effective social work practice (Engelberg & Limbach-Reich, 2015; Gerdes, Segal, Jackson & Mullins, 2011; Grant, 2014; King, 2011). If asked, most social workers and social work students would consider themselves to be naturally empathic. Furthermore, most people would assume that empathy is morally virtuous. When asked what empathy means, many would answer by saying that it means seeing things from another’s perspective, feeling what another feels, or attempting to understand another person’s situation and experience, and that empathy is a good thing and therefore desirable. This would be a fairly reasonable answer. But it is more complicated than that. Many questions can be raised about the forms and functions of empathy. Can someone empathise without feeling anything, and can the other person tell? What role does imagination play in empathy? In what ways are empathy, sympathy and compassion the same, and how are they different? Can empathy be taught and learnt? How would a social worker develop empathy and why is this important for action and for guiding social work practice? Are there limits to empathy?
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