The importance of empathy in developing relationships
Empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feeling and perspectives, and using that knowledge to guide actions. The key to communicating empathy is the ability to listen attentively and then reflect back how that person is feeling, but at the same time taking an imaginative leap into their space. This is quite different to sympathy where there is no attempt to try to understand the emotion or perspective.
Empathy can be a difficult attitude to master as we tend to want to express sympathy in order to make the other person feel better, however when considering our own experiences of talking to others, rarely do we seek advice or sympathy, but understanding. There is a significant difference in how this makes you feel, to be understood, rather than hearing how other people are telling you how you should perceive, act or feel about things.
The empathy that a counsellor develops with a client, is not unlike the empathy that an actor develops in order to portray a well-rounded and believable character in a performance. Laurence Olivier once explained that the secret to great acting was the ability to ‘love’ the character one was playing, despite all the bad things that the character might do. In a sense counsellors, like actors, do not have opinions about their client's actions, they seek to understand and accept them. In order to understand, one must attempt to put oneself in that person’s shoes and see their world.
Empathy is a creative trait where we use our imaginations and personal experience of emotions to step into the mind of another person. However the experiencing goes deeper in a therapeutic relationship. There is a difference in the relating between a client and a counsellor then with a fictional character, as obviously, one is a real person and the other a construct, however, the empathic techniques used in dramatic reconstructions display an underlying attitude to want to understand another person, and convey that understanding to an audience, whether that be to a group of people or an individual.
About the author
Warren is a person-centred counsellor who works with adults and young people from a wide range of backgrounds. He enables people to explore their experiences and feelings, in order to understand and gain some clarity with regards to their mental health, and how they might manage and cope with it in the future. He is based in Norwich, Norfolk.
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