The true nature of empathy is a central question for phenomenology. In philosophical phenomenology this is called the problem of inter-subjectivity. "The world of my daily life is by no means my private world but is from the very outset an intersubjective one, shared with my fellow men, experienced and interpreted by others; in brief, it is a world common to us all" (Schutz 1970, p.163) and yet the fundamental questions of what it means to truly understand another person in his or her otherness and how it is that such a process of understanding is possible at all, are complex.
Empathy is the opposite of ego. When I am full of ego, it is my own importance which matters. When I am full of empathy it is the other person who matters. Egotism, self-preoccupation, is the commonest barrier to empathy. Empathy is the most effective remedy for egotism. "To be with another in this way means that for the time being, you lay aside your own views and values in order to enter another's world without prejudice. In some sense it means to lay aside your self" (Rogers 1980, p.143).
Empathy is to be able to enter and experience the other person's frame of reference without appropriating it. If one appropriates the other person's frame of reference then we are talking about identification. In empathy one sees through the eyes of the other. In identification one appropriates the viewpoint of the other as one's own.
Empathy is an accurate understanding of another person's world as seen, felt and understood from the inside. It is a sensing of the other person's private world, their eigenwelt, as if it were one's own, but without ever losing the "as if" quality (Rogers 1980, p.140). Empathy is distinct from identification which is what occurs when the "as if" quality is lost and from sympathy. In sympathy there is an element of agreement and/or pity which are not part of the idea of empathy. One may be able to empathise with both parties to a dispute but only sympathise with one side or the other. This distinction is a modern one, however, and in earlier times the term sympathy included empathy.
Empathy involves a deep acceptance of the other person. This, in itself, is therapeutic. "As the client finds the therapist listening acceptantly to her feelings, she becomes able to listen acceptantly to herself" (Rogers 1978, p.11). Empathy, therefore, has to do with being in the flow of the experiences of the client.
A BASIC FACT OF LIFE
A human child is able to survive in this world only insofar as it is cared for. Caring depends upon some degree of empathy on the part of the care-takers. Empathy is thus a basic element of our lives from the very beginning. Many theories of early development suggest that the infant's sense of its separate existence from the mother is at first rudimentary if it exists at all. We begin life from a matrix of identity.
Furthermore, many schools of western psychology also see the development of empathy as an essential step in the growth of the person. Thus, for instance: "The ability to take the perspective of the other has long been considered by symbolic interactionists and cognitive developmentalists as fundamental to the development of the self" (Figurski 1987, p.197). Without empathy we are unable to see our own part in things from anything other than a purely narcissistic perspective with all the vulnerability to unnecessary pain which that entails.
Through empathy one is able to achieve a sense of relativity about what one believes, thinks and feels and it is this ability which we call maturity. Referring to the position from which one views something as the zero point, Edith Stern writes:
"From the viewpoint of the zero point of orientation gained in empathy, I must no longer consider my own zero point as the zero point, but as a spatial point among many. By this means, and only by this means, I learn to see my living body as a physical body like others" (Stein 1989, p.63).
Stein goes on to analyse how it is that empathy also provides the key to understanding how the world as a whole, and not just other people, comes to be experienced as real for us.
"The perceived world and the world given empathically are the same world differently seen. But it is not only the same one seen from different sides as when I... go from one standpoint to another. [In empathy] the new standpoint does not step into the old one's place. I retain them both at the same time. The same world is not merely presented now in one way and then in another, but in both ways at the same time. And not only is it differently presented depending upon the momentary standpoint, but also depending upon the nature of the observer. This makes the world dependent on individual consciousness, but the appearing world... is made independent of consciousness. Were I imprisoned within the boundaries of my individuality, I could not go beyond "the world as it appears to me"... its independent existence... would always be undemonstrable. But this possibility is demonstrated as soon as I cross these boundaries by the help of empathy and obtain the same world's second and third appearance which are independent of my perception. Thus empathy as the basis of intersubjective experience becomes the condition of possible knowledge of the existing outer world" (Stein 1989, p.64)
Empathy, therefore, is more than simply a factor in therapy. It is a central constituent of the psychological life of the healthy person.
CARING AND EMPATHY
Caring and empathy are not the same thing. Caring (altruism) seems to be, at least in some basic respects, inbuilt. It is part of the instinctive inheritance of all creatures which care for their young (mammals and birds) at least. Empathy, the capacity to experience the world as from the perspective of the other (allocentrism), on the other hand is not so readily given to us.
Recent studies of vervet monkeys (Seyfarth & Cheney 1992), for instance, shows that while the mother monkey clearly cares for her off-spring, she has only a very limited, if any, capacity for appreciating how the world appears to the baby. Thus, in one experiment, it did not occur to the mother that her offspring would be ignorant of the existence of a danger which she had seen, even though the youngster was not in a position to have seen the danger directly himself.
The monkeys will give appropriate alarm signals when a predator threatens, thereby saving the whole troop, even though this may in some cases put the individual in danger. There is thus a kind of in-built altruism, an instinctive willingness to self-sacrifice in the interests of the collective, but this does not, in itself, guarantee any capacity to understand the viewpoint of others.
Thus, for instance, as happened to me this morning, when one's young child comes into one's bedroom at five a.m. in order to tell you that they have just realized that it is not time to get up yet, this is not a sign of uncaring. The child expects that you will be interested in this important piece of information. The problem, if there is one, is that it simply does not occur to the child how this situation is experienced from the other person's point of view. The child is altruistic in that it wants to involve you in something interesting and important but is incapable, as yet, of being allocentric.
Now we can readily understand from the example just given how altruism without allocentrism creates problems because although "well motivated" it leads to behaviour which is not actually appreciated by the other. Children may thus easily get a large part of their natural caring knocked out of them, as it were, by the reactions which they provoke in others by their innocent attempts to be loving and giving. In varying degrees, our clients and ourselves have all suffered this fate and we thus find ourselves "defending against love" (Jampolsky 1990, p.93 et seq.).
We can see that this distinction is important for therapists to understand. Love is not enough (Bettelheim 1950), it needs empathy. Or, as Buddhists would say, compassion is not enough, it needs wisdom. The beginning therapist or counsellor is likely to be caring. The capacity for genuine allocentrism, however, remains to be developed. All therapists are trying to help their clients (altruism) but these attempts will not be skilful if empathy is lacking.
A THERAPEUTIC SKILL
Research suggests that there is quite a strong correlation between clients satisfaction about the outcomes of their work with counsellors and therapists, and their rating of the extent to which the worker seemed empathic. The better the client feels understood, the more therapeutic the client finds the therapy process to be. Empathy seems to be an essential characteristic of the good therapeutic relationship no matter what school of thought the therapist belongs to.
Fortunately, most people can improve their ability to be empathic fairly readily:
Therapists can learn, quite quickly, to be better, more sensitive listeners, more empathic. It is in part a skill as well as an attitude. To become more genuine or more caring, however, the therapist must change experientially, and this is a slower and more complex process (Rogers 1978, p.11).
We can say, therefore, that a certain level of empathic ability can be cultivated as a skill. There are, however, limits to this. In the first place, becoming empathic is a matter of shifting one's attention in such a way that one is seeing the world, as it were, through the eyes of the other person. Most of us find that we can do this easily up to a point. We hit a block as soon as this requires us to go beyond the rigidities in our own pattern of perception which have to do with our mental attachments.
For instance, it may be easy to empathise with the client who is angry with his brother but more difficult to empathize with the client who is angry with the counsellor. The ability to adopt an empathic perspective is equivalent to the ability to be objective about ourselves: "adopting the perspective of the other toward ourselves is dependent upon the ability to first consider the other's internal experience, specifically the perception of ourselves from that perspective" (Figurski 1987, p.200).
Similarly, it is difficult to empathize with things which one has "pigeon-holed" in one's own mind. Thus, Carl Rogers, commenting upon his work with groups of black and white people, points out that many of the responses made by white people are quite inadequate to the depth of feeling being expressed:
Rage needs to be heard. This does not mean that it simply needs to be listened to. It needs to be accepted, taken within, and understood empathically. While the diatribes and accusations appear to be deliberate attempts to hurt the whites - an act of catharsis to dissolve centuries of abuse, oppression, and injustice - the truth about rage is that it only dissolves when it is really heard and understood, without reservations (Rogers 1978, p.133).
In On Personal Power, Rogers portrays empathy as a way of sharing power within relationships. He is talking here not just about therapeutic relationships but about all personal encounters. His hope is that the ideas and data he presents may intrigue you into opening your mind to new possibilities. And this may increase the chance that you will try it out, in your own experience, in a small way. if you try them at all, you open yourself to visceral learnings that may change your behaviour and change you.
You may begin to be more empathic, and trusting of an adolescent son or daughter... Or you may try to understand your wife (or husband) purely from his or her point of view, not trying to change or control those perceptions [or] if you are a teacher, give your students freedom of choice.. where you feel comfortable in doing so. In every case you would be altering the politics of the relationship in some small way and then carefully observing the attitudinal and behavioral consequences. (Rogers 1978, p.103)
There is certainly a sense in which becoming empathic means completely abandoning the attempt to have power over others. It is an active way of disengaging from conflict with the world by practising a deeper kind of acceptance, accepting others as they are subjectively, and not trying, in any way, to manipulate them nor to tell them how they should be.
A phenomenological approach to therapy is one which stresses the importance of appreciating the subjective world of the client and it is also one which keeps open the possibility that there may be any number of different ways of construing a given situation. To apply these principles means that the therapist must maintain a special kind of neutrality in which his own personal biasses are laid aside as far as possible. I say, a special kind, because what we are talking about here is not a coldness nor clinicism, but simply an openness of vision coupled with a warm receptivity toward whatever may arise. Thus:
"In order to assist clients in their investigation of their world views as optimally as possible, it is necessary for phenomenological therapists to maintain both empathy with and personal neutrality towards their clients' life experiences. Through empathy they are able to enter their clients' internal experience of the world as far as is possible in order to reflect it back as accurately as they are able.
Equally, through neutrality, they are more able to bracket their own meanings and interpretations of the world so as not to make it their task to value, judge or criticize their clients' experience, nor to instruct their clients as to how to live out their lives in ways which imitate and have the approval of the therapist." (Spinelli 1989, p.130)
There is, perhaps, a difference of emphasis between Rogers and other phenomenologists on this question. For Rogers, the most important thing is to achieve as deep and accurate an appreciation of the perspective which the client has as possible. The aim is that the client should feel deeply understood. Other phenomenologists may take the view that while this is undoubtedly important, it is also important to be able to see that there are possibilities in the client's situation other than the one to which he is currently attached. Spinelli, again, continues:
"Phenomenological therapists must maintain this awareness of the wide range of existential possibilities available to their clients and have the inner integrity (not to say humility) to allow their clients to / arrive at their own decisions and make their own choices about how to live their lives. This, in turn, requires therapists to have a substantial degree of self-knowledge so that they are more aware of the biases and assumptions in their own lives in order to be better able to bracket them" (Spinelli 1989, p.130-131)
Rogers believes that the "self-actualizing tendency" of the client will ensure that the client will find the best path provided that the right psychological climate can be provided. Other phenomenologists tend to believe that the actualising tendency is itself a product of perceptual shifts and that these can happen through the medium of the counsellor-client relationship which is, therefore, a creative rather than just a liberating process. To some extent, Rogers gets round this difficulty in his theory by allowing that at advanced levels of empathy the therapist may sense and give voice to perspectives of which the client was not yet aware.
Empathy may be analysed in several different ways according to
i. its dimensions,
ii. the faculties it affects,
iii. perceptual field,
v. temporal aspect.
It is possible to consider several conceptually distinct dimensions in empathy. Empathy includes
(1) sensing the feelings of the person;
(2) clarity about what the person thinks and means;
(3) appreciation of the person's motives and intentions; and
(4) understanding of the frame of reference and implicit assumptions which give significance to what the person says and does.
Empathy involves the cognitive, perceptual, feeling, imaginative and creative faculties:
Cognitive means that I understand how the other person thinks about and makes sense of the world. This is a matter of beliefs and values.
Perceptual means that I can see things as if looking from the person's viewpoint.
Feeling means that I can feel in my own body what the other person experiences, their fear, anger, joy and so on.
Imaginative means that I use my imagination to enter into the client's world. As the client tells his story I bring it to life in my own mind as if I were participating in it in the same way that he has done.
Empathy is creative in that it is a process whereby the counsellor co-operates with the client who is engaged in constructing a representation of his life. We would be mistaken to think that the client already knows what he needs to know and is simply conveying this to us as information. It is in the course of the dialogue that the client brings into being a form of words or imagery which represents his experience. This is a process of composition and the counsellor plays an important role in this creation. As the client's experience is represented adequately, so new experiences are brought into being. From a phenomenological perspective, we should not think simply that what is happening in therapy is a process of revealing what is already there.
In a counselling session, we may say that there are the following perceptual fields:
i. those things which only the client knows and of which the counsellor becomes aware only as the client reveals them. This is sometimes called the inner world of the client.
ii. the shared world of meanings and images which is built up through the dialogue and becomes the private property of the counsellor and client jointly together.
iii. the client's appearance, which can (unless there is a mirror) only be directly perceived by the counsellor. This includes all the client's body language and facial expressions.
iv. the counsellor's appearance most of which can only be directly perceived by the client.
Lastly, there is the counsellor's inner world which may be considered as consisting of two parts, namely,
v. the counsellor's experience of her own private life which is not, for the most part, visible to the client, and,
vi. the counsellor's awareness of how she is inwardly reacting to the client's presence.
Therapeutic empathy is the counsellor's attention to the first three of these fields. Empathic responses are largely, however, based upon the last of them. It is what the counsellor experiences inwardly while attending outwardly which gives her the necessary information to know when and how best to respond.
It is also useful to distinguish between receptive and expressive modes of empathy. Receptive empathy is the capacity to listen and understand. Expressed empathy is the ability to clearly convey back to the person what it is that one has understood. Such a reply is generally referred to as an empathic response or an empathic understanding response or a reflection. Expressed empathy requires a command of appropriate language and an ability to match tone of voice, energy and body language in a way that leaves no doubt about one's appreciation of the person's mood and sense.
An empathic response may take the form of
- a pure reflection in which what the client has expressed is repeated in his own or synonymous words,
- a summary in which a number of things expressed are linked in a single response,
- a key word response in which a single significant word used by the client is high-lighted or
- an intuitive response in which the therapist expresses understanding based on an appreciation of the significance and meaning to the client of something which may not yet have been put into words.
In attempting to empathically understand what a person says, a number of different aspects can be distinguished. The client may tell a story. The story itself is referred to as the content. The story will be told with a certain tone of voice, tempo, facial expression, gesture and involuntary body language which reveal the client's mood, emotion and attitude. We may say that this is the manner in which the person tells the story. A message cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of both content and manner. When there is a mismatch between these, as when people smile while telling you they are miserable, this indicates that there is something more to be understood than is revealed by either the content or the manner considered alone.
The temporal aspect of empathy refers to the fact that mostly clients are talking about things which did or will take place in a time other than the immediate present. It is therefore possible to empathize with
i. the thoughts, feelings, meanings and motives which appeared at the time being talked about, that is, the there and then material, and/or
ii. the thoughts, feelings, meanings and motives which are arising now in the act of retelling the story, that is, the here and now material.
Thus the client may be telling a story which is sad in itself but may be amused to be relating it now. An important skill for counsellors is to learn to pay attention to both and to understand not only what is it that the client is telling me but also what is the significance of the client telling the story at all, telling it to me, telling it in a particular manner and so on.
UNDERSTANDING THE CLIENT
By attending to the content and manner, with the use of all one's concentration and faculties, entering the client's frame of reference in an imaginative way the counsellor hopes to understand the personal significance to the client of what is happening. This may have a number of aspects to it. Five primary aspects are the problem, the person, the purpose, the relationship and the present vantage point.
The problem refers to the unresolved issues which the client feels engaged with. The story will have some relevance to this and may be told as an illustration of it. A trap for the inexperienced counsellor is to become embroiled in elucidating the stories without ever seeing that they are simply illustrations. If a client feels his problem is a lack of confidence and tells a story about a time when he failed to ask for something he wanted it does not usually further the counselling much to draw out more and more facts about the incident. On the other hand, it is also important to realise that the problem itself is also merely symptomatic.
Beginning counsellors tend to be rather problem centred. They work on the assumption that all will be well if the problems can be solved. However, what is a problem for one person is a satisfaction for another and an irrelevance for a third. Problems only exist in relation to purposes. As counsellors become more experienced they tend to become less problem centred and more person centred. That is, they tend to come to see the presented problems as simply illustrative of the kind of person the client is and rather than trying to solve them for the client, they are interested in looking at how it is that the client lives her life in such a manner that problems of that kind emerge.
This latter, person centred approach can lead us to start seeing strengths rather than weaknesses. If a person tells me about a problem which has arisen in their life, my first assumption is that this problem probably serves some important function in maintaining the equilibrium of the person's life or in furthering purposes which are important to them. Rather than take the problem away, I am interested to know what it tells us.
Understanding the person, therefore, refers to the fact that the story will always reveal the client in a certain light, perhaps as a winner or a loser or a victim or a clever person or whatever. Appreciating that this is the client's attempt to reveal his identity as well as just his experience is important. One's first important task as a counsellor is to gain as deep and thorough an understanding of what makes this person tick as possible. The fact is that everybody sees the world in their own particular way and we have to understand the drama of each person's life in its uniqueness.
This uniqueness is often best defined in terms of the person's motives or purposes. The purpose refers to the way the story indicates basic values and directions held by the client in life. Each person goes about accommodating the basic existential concerns in their own way. Without understanding a person's basic intentions, one has no real understanding of them, nor of why something would be a problem for them. For instance, it is common for counsellors to wrongly assume that all their clients want to be free of pain or to be happy, but this may be very low on the priority list of many people. For many people it may be more meaningful to do their duty, or to get vengeance against their enemies or to be of service to others or to protect their children or any one of a number of important motives, than to be happy, for instance.
The Therapy Relationship
Relationship, here, refers to the fact that since the story is being told by the client to the counsellor, the choice of story and the manner of telling it must say something significant about the relationship between these two people. It may indicate, for instance, that the client now feels safe enough to reveal this particular information. It may mean that the client wants you to see her in a particular light. It may mean that the client has picked up the idea that these are the sort of stories you like to hear and since she wants to please you she is telling you another one. It may mean that there are important things the client believes she should tell you about, but knows that this will be painful or embarrassing and so wants to fill up the time with something more entertaining. There are any number of possibilities.
In particular, it is likely that, consciously or not, what the client tells the counsellor is a way of testing the counsellor out. The client needs to know how trust-worthy the counsellor is. Before I reveal my best kept secrets, I want to know how reliable the listener is. How am I to find out? One way is to tell the therapist something embarrassing, but not too dreadful, and see how she responds. Depending upon how well I think she handles this disclosure, I may or may not reveal other things which are more significant for me.
The Present Vantage Point
In order to relate a story one has to have attained a degree of distance from the events. The manner of telling the story reveals not only how the client was then, but also where he is seeing these events from now. In one sense, the client is always engaged in telling the counsellor about himself as he is now, even when the content of what is actually said is concerned with events of time past. This is because the story reveals not only what the client sees as they look back, but also the vantage point they must now have reached in order to be able to describe it in the way that they do. Furthermore, we must always remember that there must be some current relevance to the material or the client would not bother to look at it at all. Most of what is recounted in therapy is "unfinished business" of one sort or another. It is the present relevance which provides the narrative with its driving force.
LEVELS OF EMPATHY
When empathy is lacking the therapist sees the client only from the outside, from the therapist's own ego-centric perspective. In this state the therapist does not have any awareness the client's conscious feelings and is likely to say things which are not appropriate to the mood or content of the client's statements. The therapist might be bored or uninterested or might be engaged in giving advice but does not show an awareness of the client's own thoughts and feelings.
A first step toward empathy begins as an attempt to acknowledge what the client has expressed. This beginning attempt may still over-look any subtle feelings and meanings and may be full of mistakes and inaccuracies but if there is an attempt to show that some of what the client has said has been received, then there is the beginning of empathy.
Once one starts to appreciate the client's viewpoint, one realises that there is more to what the client is trying to express than is immediately apparent. One has a sense that there are deeper feelings and meanings behind what is being said and one is conscious that one does not yet really understand what these are. The counsellor who is at this point is likely to make responses which are supportive but non-specific like: "It sounds as though that was a difficult time for you," or "So there were a lot of feelings around," without any clarity about what precisely was difficult or which feelings were being experienced.
The attempt at empathy gets deeper when one starts to recognise less superficial meanings and feelings. Some of the therapist's attempts may be clumsy or inaccurate in some respects but there is a genuine attempt to achieve some accuracy and specificity about what the client intends. Really, at this stage, it would be truer to say that the worker is trying to diagnose than to empathise. There is a serious attempt to understand but as yet the client's own perspective has not been fully appreciated, since "true empathy is always free of any evaluative or diagnostic quality" (Rogers 1980, p.154).
Real empathy begins when the worker is making a genuine attempt to see things from the client's own perspective. Initially this may not be very accurate as far as the less obvious feelings and meanings are concerned, but rather than reaching for a conclusion about the client's state, the worker at this stage will express herself tentatively so that errors do not jar. Sometimes the therapist simply communicates awareness of the difficulty of understanding another's inner world.
As real empathy develops the worker comes to recognise most of the client's present feelings, intentions and meanings, including those which are implied rather than stated. We may say that the worker is "with" the client, tuned in to the client's present state and able to identify what the client is feeling and the underlying meaning of what the client expresses. The worker perhaps does not yet always appreciate the full intensity of each element and his responses may sometimes have a somewhat static quality so that although the client may feel understood, the dialogue does not yet flow smoothly.
Once the therapist begins to sense the true intensity of most of the client's feelings and meanings there comes a much clearer understanding of underlying emotions and intention. There may still be material present which is not recognised by either the therapist or the client, but the two are now exploring together and the therapist is able to point out the more significant or emotionally laden material as it appears, sensing accurately what is most important to the client.
At an advanced level of empathy, the worker accurately senses and understands all the client's conscious feelings and is adept at uncovering their underlying significance, voicing meanings in the client's experience of which the client is scarcely aware. Rogers writes about this:
"empathic understanding.. means that the therapist senses accurately the feelings and personal meanings that are being experienced by the client and communicates this understanding to the client. At its best the therapist is so much inside the private world of the other that she can clarify not only the meanings of which the client is aware but even those just below the level of awareness. When she responds at such a level the client's reaction is of this sort: "Perhaps that is what I've been trying to say. I haven't realized it, but yes, that's how I do feel!"" (Rogers 1978, p.11).
Since the therapist uses a degree of trial and error there are still some inaccuracies of understanding but these do not get in the way since they are held lightly. In this rather advanced kind of empathy the worker expresses fluently feelings and experiences that the client has only hinted at, changing track easily whenever it is apparent that he has taken a wrong turn. The content that comes to light may be new but is not alien.
When there is complete empathy, the worker is attuned to the exact intensity of the client's complete range of feelings, understands the full depth of what is implied by each thing the client tries to express and is able to communicate this attunement and understanding with precision, fluency and immediacy. This degree of empathy is unusual.
The epitome of empathy is better described as an event than a state or level. There are those very special and rare moments when therapist and client are so completely attuned that words really seem unnecessary. These are "magic moments" which constitute an altered state of consciousness. Rogers, again, records that:
"When I am at my best, as a group facilitator or as a therapist, I discover another characteristic. I find that when I am closest to my inner, intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me, when perhaps I am in a slightly altered state of consciousness, then whatever I do seems to be full of healing.. it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other (Rogers 1980, p.129)
WHICH RESPONSES ARE EMPATHIC?
You might like to consider the following example and see which of the responses offered seem most empathic, or in what context they might become empathic and which would not be. Which might be most useful?
Client: On Saturday I wanted Sally to dance with me but I didn't have the courage to ask her.
1) So that is an instance of this problem of lack of confidence which you are concerned about.
2) Was it being with Sally that was important or just having someone to dance with?
4) You knew what you wanted to do but somehow you couldn't bring yourself to do it.
5) A lot of people feel shy in situations like that.
6) I can really envisage the scene and I have a feeling she was probably as shy as you were.
7) You would like to be a bold person. You would like to be able to ask Sally to dance without feeling timid.
8) You sound quite fed up with yourself.
9) You wanted her, and yet...
10) If Sally was here now, what do you think you might say to her?
11) In here with me you can tell me about your failures and problems but out there in the world it is still a struggle risking being vulnerable with another person.
12) I know just what that feels like.
13) I have a sense of you going over it and over it in your head, rehearsing what you might say to her, but not quite being able to get yourself into action.
An empathic response is one which demonstrates to the client that one understands what is he or she is experiencing and that one is able to understand it from the client's own perspective. However, this still leaves the worker with a good deal of choice about what to focus upon since there are usually quite a few different things going on for the client simultaneously. Empathic responses may therefore be:
1. Descriptive: What do you see in front of you?
eg "I notice you are frowning as you say that"
2. Focused on emotion:
eg "You seem sad"
3. Focused on cognition:
eg "It sounds like you are reviewing your situation in your mind"
4. Key words:
Echo just the words used which seem to have particular force
5. Accuracy checking:
"If I have understood that right, you are saying ...
6. Highlighting ambivalence:
"So on the one hand... and on the other...
"So let's try and summarise, so far..
So far we have thought about empathy as a therapeutic quality of the therapist which creates a healing atmosphere for the client. Developing empathy is, however, also a valuable step for the client. It is often by developing an empathy for the world views of others that the client moves from a position which is entrenched and "stuck" to seeing new possibilities in life situations and relationships, from a sense of unreality to one of engagement, and from a feeling that his own problems occupy the whole universe to a recognition of their relativity.
The development of empathy for significant others is not often discussed in therapeutic theory, but is frequently used in psychodrama, where role reversal is used to allow the protagonist to experience the world through the eyes of another. Such an exchange of roles often brings about a sudden shift of perspective for the protagonist, allowing them to experience real connection with the other, where previously it was blocked.
A similar situation can arise spontaneously in therapy where a client talks at length about a loved one, struggling to appreciate the difficulties which that person is experiencing. When a degree of empathy for the other's position is achieved, there is frequently a breakthrough for the client. In place of suspicion or hurt, appreciation and caring often take over. The "problem" is seen from a new angle.
A client can also develop empathy for the therapist in the session. It is frequently recognised that towards the end of therapy clients begin to show more interest and concern for the therapist as a person. This ability to show caring for another, whilst using space to explore one's own issues, is recognised as a sign that a new level of interaction has been reached, one in which person to person connection can take place. The criteria for therapy being at an end could be said to be the emergence of that degree of mutuality in the relationship which comes when the client is no longer pre-occupied with self.
From an eastern perspective, it might be said that it is actually the failure to achieve empathy (or compassion) which is the root of all mental suffering and the cultivation of tenderness toward others coupled to the wisdom to help them in skilful ways, a path known as exchanging self with others (Gyatso 1986, pp.264-282), is then seen as the essence of therapy for ourselves and others alike.
EMPATHY AND TRANSCENDENCE
From a phenomenological perspective, we have to admit the idea that empathy is a much wider phenomenon than simply the understanding of one individual by another. We generally live our lives within a set of assumptions and attitudes which phenomenologists call "the natural attitude" (Schutz 1970, p.72). The natural attitude includes all the taken for granted assumptions which we make in the course of our ordinary lives and which we share in varying degrees with those around us. It is the fact that these assumptions are, by and large, shared, that makes our society hold together. Most of the time we do not think about any of this.
What happens in therapy when one person empathises with another is not only that the client feels understood but also that many of the client's taken for granted assumptions are brought into consciousness. In order to demonstrate that she understands the client's frame of reference, the therapist states many of its elements explicitly. This is something which the client does not usually do. The fact that the therapist does it brings these elements into focus and so available to inspection. This has the effect of subtly bringing them into question.
The effect of this is to, in a sense, lift the client to a higher vantage point than is usually occupied. Normally we live our lives within a rather confined space in which we are only in touch with a limited range of experience. We have built a niche for ourselves which, in everyday life, we defend. The therapist's empathy has the effect of melting these defences and putting us in a position from which we can take a wider view of our life situation. There is a move from small mindedness to what we might call big mindedness. This movement is what is called transcendence.
When a client expresses enthusiasm for something in which she is interested, this can be seen as a form of empathy, an investment of energy outside of the self. There is, therefore, an extended sense in which the term empathy can be used to cover our relations not just with other people but also with places, things, ideas and the natural world. Empathy is the way in which the mitwelt (Brazier 1992) comes to life for us and thereby we ourselves are brought alive. We come to life via the things which live for us.
At best this can be an amazingly liberating experience. Once out of the confines of the accustomed view, the client can suddenly find many new possibilities crowding forward for attention. The client's own empathy expands. Instead of believing that there are only one or two possibilities in life, there emerges a sense that anything is possible. This produces a sense of communion with the world in general which may manifest as a restored feeling of connection with nature or a deepened sense of peace in relation to other people generally.
Empathy is more than a therapeutic skill. It is a central element in life providing the essential basis for a truly human way of seeing the world and relating to others. As such it is needed by our clients as much as by ourselves, and by ourselves as people, not just as professionals.
Empathy plays a central part in therapy and counselling being the means to restoring a sense of reality to life, mutuality to relationships and communion to our appreciation of our being in the world.
Empathy is, at a simple level, a skill which we can all improve with good effects upon both our professional work and our private lives and, at a deeper level, is a challenge to us to overcome the obstacles to life within ourselves and to deepen the basis of our appreciation of others.
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