Many counsellors, as a condition of their training, have experienced counselling for themselves. This experience puts them in the position of knowing something of the process from both sides. They recognise that there are certain aspects that they find really important for a successful outcome.
I wish to talk about empathy. Empathy is one of the three ‘core conditions’ that should be present and felt by the client in a therapeutic encounter (the others being ‘congruence’ and ‘unconditional positive regard’). It is a way of paying close attention to what is going on in someone else in a way that encourages the other to talk. The feeling develops that what the talker is saying is worthwhile, and that they are worthwhile too. The listener is trying to become familiar with the inner world of the other person. As this progresses, this familiarity grows into a deeper understanding of the other’s internal landscape - what is important to them, what they feel most deeply, and how these ideas and feelings fit into the way they see their lives. And as a result, the talker may feel more confident in exploring more deeply, perhaps uncovering feelings about their lives they did not know they had.
Empathy is about recognizing the way the other person is thinking - how they is making sense of their world - and how the person is feeling. It is not a detached process on the part of the counsellor. They have to be committed to the “client” and their well-being. They must also be curious, and use their imagination, and notice what their own feelings are, as the client unfolds their story - these may correspond to what the client is feeling, but perhaps not knowing it yet.
The effect of this approach is that a relationship of trust grows between counsellor and client. A sense of connection develops as the counsellor accurately feeds back their understanding of the client’s issues. The client feels something powerful and liberating when this occurs. Life does not feel so bleak or isolating. When this is repeated time and time again, the client feels something different about their life. Being understood means no longer feeling so isolated.
Empathy is not an esoteric technique invented by the counselling profession. Rather, as you may have noticed, it is part of everyday life and everyday contact with other people. We notice what is going on in others as we try to navigate our way through life. It is an important part of how we relate with people who are important to us. But it is also an important function of a connective society to enhance this empathic bond, helping people to feel less marginalized and more a part of the whole. And as counsellors use this aspect of communication, they have been thinking and writing (and researching) about its value in helping people.
In some ways, feeling and expressing empathy in relationships in our lives is more challenging than in the counselling room. In “real life”, we have complicated needs that we hope for from other people, and we have to find a way to give and take to get our needs met. Life can get very complicated! In counselling, counsellors expect these needs to be met elsewhere – and so they can devote their whole attention to the client. To make counselling safe for both parties, boundaries are put around the relationship, of time, place and purpose. But empathy, when felt by both parties is a border incursion that can be an essential to the growthful environment.