Nell Hardy is an actor, writer and theatre facilitator with lived experience of homelessness and mental health hospitalisation. Her new company Response Ability Theatre works with trauma survivors and care providers to improve communicative confidence and general wellbeing in both groups, and led our discussion on overcoming the barriers to empathetic communication with people going through tough times as a care provider.

Recently (November 2021) Nell hosted a Conversations that Challenge event, on behalf of the New System Alliance, which explored the topic of professional empathy. It was attended by a diverse audience from across the social care sector – here are her reflections on the conversation.

Bringing a conversation about professional empathy to the New System Alliance, I knew that I would be talking to like-minded people – so was checking myself to avoid ‘preaching to the converted’. Everyone there would already agree that professionalism without empathy is like a home without a key – a prison at worst, totally useless at best – and that if we are considering care simply as ‘keeping people alive’, we are still a long way off restoring the human rights of people going through tough times.

So what I was out for was an opportunity to present my methodology around using actors’ techniques of self-preservation in embodied performance, to help care providers also to be ‘present’, ‘genuine’ and ‘in the moment’ with their ‘scene partners’, to like-minded professionals, and hear from them what they want and need to be able to do it. And I got exactly that.

The conversation was guided by some focal questions:

  • What’s the most helpful thing you’ve ever taken from workplace interpersonal training?
  • What’s the least helpful thing you’ve ever taken from this kind of training?
  • What role does the arts play in your life, in your personal self and your professional self?
  • When have you felt that your job has asked you to speak or act in a way that went against your empathetic instincts? How would you have wanted to be empowered in that moment?

There weren’t many surprises in what people didn’t find useful, and the word ‘safeguarding’ was positively spat out a number of times. There was also irritation at reading-off-a-Powerpoint-presentation formats in which there are no opportunities to ask questions and much of the information is irrelevant to you in your particular role.

This led to fruitful discussions around the concept of ‘mass fixing’, a massive all-round turn-off for the group. It was clear that nobody there has ever trusted any one-size-fits-all approach to people experiencing tough times, and interestingly (though perhaps unsurprisingly) training that condones ‘mass fixing’ of people deemed ‘vulnerable’ also seems to take a ‘mass fixing’ approach to professionals, assuming they all lack and need the same skills and information. Helpful for giving us an empathetic insight into just how infuriating it must be to be someone within the system being treated as ‘just another one’, I suppose, but not much else.

I was heartened, however, to hear one person’s story of having been encouraged to “trust your gut” during training. Having the bravery and faith in your care providers to let them trust their instincts is surely just one tiny step away from encouraging them to trust and utilise their emotions, and that is exactly what I set out to do.

Of course, by ‘use your emotions’, I don’t mean ‘manipulate’ or ‘wallow’. Our emotions are hard-wired into our instincts of self-preservation, and as empathetic beings, our instincts of preserving others too.

Allowing yourself that sharp intake of breath in response to surprise may be exactly what you need to get the oxygen to your brain and think on your feet for a solution to a problem. And stopping that breath so as not to “give anything away” to a vulnerable person may make your brain go blank, as well as leaving that person believing something of massive consequence to them doesn’t have any impact on you.

Similarly, if you need to allow yourself a sigh when someone gets some really bad news, they probably need that too. And your doing it will give them permission to process their loss, freeing you both up to work together on the best way forward from there.

As someone in the group very eloquently said, empathy is great, but you still need action. I would argue that empathy in its truest form sometimes is action. Empathy means recognising what someone feels and needs – sometimes that means a nodding head and a listening ear, but sometimes that means someone who picks up the phone and says “right, let’s see what we can do about this”.

And sometimes, of course, it means being able to admit that you couldn’t get someone what they need and apologising for it, even if it wasn’t your fault. Many people recognised a pattern in a lot of services of not wanting to admit to their own shortcomings – but if that admission isn’t there, then a person is left believing their needs aren’t going to be met because… they don’t deserve it? They did something wrong?

I was really moved to hear one participant tell of involvement in an adoption service that sought to find out information that children wanted about their birth parents. Forms would be returned, and where someone hadn’t been able to find something out, the worker had left a note saying “I’m so sorry, I did everything I could, but I just couldn’t track down this information.” When the children were asked their favourite parts of the form, those apologies came out top – because they came from someone who had tried really hard for them, who believed they deserved their time and effort and wished they could have done more.

It seems like a subtle jump from “it’s not me, it’s the system” to “I’m sorry, I did everything I could but I just couldn’t get it through (such-and-such a service)”. But it’s the difference between “don’t make me feel bad” and “you deserve better”. The first under certain circumstances feels like “stop making an impact on the world”, the second like “I can’t wait to see you make your impact on the world”.

Something that came through very strongly was that having the opportunity to talk to other professionals is always really valued as part of training. That was something that I wasn’t necessarily expecting, but certainly made sense on reflection. It really made me think about how under the right circumstances, people going through tough times can support each other better than anyone else can: that level playing field is a really rich ground for discovery, sharing of tips and, while we’re talking about empathy, ‘getting it’.

The question about the role of the arts in people’s lives was a little left-field and I’m not sure what I was hoping to achieve with it, but it took us in some really interesting directions. To some people, engagement in the arts was all music lessons, exams, having to be “good at” something. To others, it was a chance to be chaotic, to release. I was pleased to hear some people say they already used free sketching or dancing in their work with the people they support. But there was no mention of this kind of work featuring in their own training, and there certainly seemed to be appetite.

Because the liberating thing about the arts for me – or certainly of theatre and live performance – is that you can’t really get it right or wrong, and the only way to make sure you’re doing it in a meaningful way is to make it come genuinely from you. Likewise, care providers have to make countless decisions every day that will have huge impacts on people’s lives, and it can be real luck-of-the-draw what happens as a result of them. But if they are informed by empathetic communication with the people they are working with, that connection is what will stay with someone in the long term, and empower them with self-esteem and hope.

Someone said they thought theatre-inspired training would be really helpful for getting care providers out of a ‘them-and-us’ mentality and instead have them walking in the shoes of the people they support. As someone who has been through tough times and as an actor who passionately believes in the potential theatre has to create tangible societal change, it was heartening for me to hear that the bravery and desire to step into those shoes exists in care providers.

The real challenge, of course, will be getting through to those that don’t have that desire, nor that recognition of the value of genuine empathetic connection. But with successful practice comes kudos and with kudos comes authority. I truly believe active empathy and foregrounding hope is not just the most humane practice, but the most efficient as well, and I hope I can be part of that change of culture in care.

More about Nell

If you want to discover more about my methodology, I would love to have you at my public Duty of Hope workshop at Poplar Union from 10am-1pm on Saturday 20th November. And if you’re curious but sceptical, I will personally refund you your £5 if you leave at the end still thinking it’s nonsense!

I will also be running a workshop for trauma survivors on Sunday 21st November from 11am-2pm, which is free to attend. And my autobiographical solo show NoMad is on at Poplar Union on Tuesday 16th November, with pay what you feel tickets – if you happen to fancy a spontaneous theatre trip that won’t break the bank!

Booking links for all three of these events can be found through the Poplar Union website.

In January I will be delivering Arts Council funded performances and workshops for targeted groups of survivors and care providers. If you are interested in being part of that work, either individually or as part of an organisation, please contact me at nell@responseabilitytheatre.com for more information.

What’s next

You believe that systems surrounding tough times need to change

You are open to new ideas, even the big scary ones!

You want to lead change alongside other like-minded allies

Be a part of the change…