Empathy and the counselling client
People come into counselling for unique and individual reasons, as an example: Mary's experience of depression will be very different from June's experience of depression. One of the primary aims in counselling is to understand in a caring and considered way, which involves active listening. To understand as best we can an individual's world. To help individuals make better sense of their meanings.
We can go through life, never having felt very valued, heard, understood or accepted.
Others conditions, wishes, hopes, expectations can become muddled with our own. Our relationships don't always work out with others as well as we may like them to. Even more importantly our relationship with ourselves. People who care for us may see us as a projection of their needs and problems and likewise we may do the same with others. In counselling it is therefore essential to offer something different in order that clients may realise and release their intrinsic worth. Central to this something different is the attitude, skill, value of empathy.
Empathy is the ability to put ones self in another's shoes, following the client and their process in an attempt to actively engage, hear and sense something of their subjective world. Empathy is thus a focus on the individual and how they see themselves, how they experience the world.
Helping is dependent on understanding the client. In so doing we are attempting to convey our genuiness and acceptance all of which has been emphasised as necessary for growth and change. Many agree that empathy is a significant and crucial part of the therapeutic relationship. It is considered to be fundamental to therapeutic change, regardless of therapeutic orientation. It is said to help build trust and can be viewed as an emotionally corrective experience, in that clients may remodel their way of relating and thinking about themselves in their intra and inter-relationships.
Empathic listening is at the heart of the counsellors developing sensitivity to the client and their inner world. Empathic understanding involves both a perception of something implicit and explicit in the relationship and the ability to communicate this, through a reflective relationship and through checking the accuracy of our empathic understanding.
How can it help?
Empathy helps clients to feel understood, fully heard and can enable you to process things in a different way, helping to establish trusting and good therapeutic relationships. It an help with the development of your own self view and also with your ability to empathise with others.
Sanders, P. (2006) The Person Centred Counselling Primer. Ross on Wye, PCCS Books.
Tolan, S. (2012) Skills in Person Centred Counselling and Psychotherapy. London, Sage.
Rogers, R. (1961) On becoming a person. London, Constable.
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About Justin Lee Slaughter
I have a background in counselling and psychotherapy, social science and in healthcare with a broad range of experience in both adult and adolescent mental health. I manage a small private practice, I currently volunteer as part of a counselling team at THT Brighton and Hove, as well as working in community mental health support services.