Empathy at the crux

The National Geographic film 'Free Solo' opens with a beautiful shot of cliffs emerging from forestry in Yosemite National Park, California. This is El Capitan. Its grey granite rock is contrasted by a tiny scrap of red. As the camera pans in we can see that this is a man climbing the sheer vertical rock face without a rope, his hands jammed into a crack a few centimetres wide, 800 metres from the ground.


The importance of empathy 

In this article, I want to write about empathy. I hope that even in the description above you felt something for the climber (Alex Hannold). As I watched it, I felt my hands sweating a little, a lurch in my stomach, and a sense of dizziness. We can feel something for other people and this is the basis of our profession - whether we are a counsellor a psychotherapist or a psychologist.

You might know of the idea of a 'crux' in climbing. This is defined as the "key problem to be solved in a particular route" - the main difficulty that you must encounter in your climb, sometimes at the point where the greatest danger lies. In Free Solo, Alex defines the crux of his route up El Cap (called Free Blast) as a particular sequence of moves he needs to make to solve “the boulder problem”.

In my definition of a pivotal point in the film, I noted another crux. It is a two-minute sequence just after Alex has had to give up on an attempt to climb the route. He meets another older climber, Peter Croft. The dialogue goes like this:

Peter: “What’s going on?”
Alex: “Well, not much.”

Peter notes the difficulty Alex is in, doesn’t leave this and puts out a further probe. You will know this from working with people: our initial answer to a question like this is social and automatic - it’s not usually accurate to your actual feelings. I explain this to clients as the main reason I ask them how they are doing twice!

Peter: “What’s up?”
Alex: “Oh I just went up to Free Blast, and I was like ‘Nah, I’m not into it’.”
Peter: “Good for you.”

This is Peter offering his compassion and empathy towards Alex. It comes from a place of understanding - both of the conditions of climbing this route, the pressures Alex is under and understanding that making your own choices about how you climb is of key importance to your safety and sense of self as a climber. It’s a very simple expression, but it conveys this message perfectly. Alex goes on to express his feelings of uncertainty about this. To use Carl Roger’s term, his feeling of "incongruence'"

Alex: “Yeah, well it’s just a little weird, you know?”
Peter: “Yup.”
Alex:  “I mean there are just too many random folks about and stuff, whatever…”
Peter: “Hmm-mm, yeah.”
Alex: “But basically I did the first half of the first slab. And then, uh, I was just like ‘oh, I don’t know'. And my feet…”
Peter: “You made the perfect decision.”

This statement is offered calmly and gently. It supports Alex’s autonomy to make his own choices, his sense of himself, offering him feedback, and allowing Alex to feel safe and accepted.

It’s important that Peter isn’t his film director, his publisher, his mother, or his girlfriend. He is outside of other relationships. Alex can then feel unpressured by him. There is an aspect of the back story in the film that maybe shows that external validation was really important for Alex. Alex is uncertain - for him, it feels unusual to experience this.

Alex: “I don’t know. I’m just like … it all has to drag on longer.”
Peter: “Yeah, I mean, you NEVER have to go for it.”

This is an example of advanced empathy. Peter understands that Alex feels the drive that he must climb this route, that there is no alternative but his statement is going beyond feedback and reflection. He offers another suggestion.

You might do this with clients, sometimes. This isn’t a way to push your solution, but it is offering a suggestion that maybe they don’t see. They always have the autonomy to consider this. If someone does take it as a direct piece of advice it’s a good idea to slow down and allow the person to consider this as an option along with others, rather than a directive course of action.

Alex: Well, I need it to end, you know. Yeah, yeah all the…”
Peter: “ Yeah, I know. Totally. The circus surrounding you.”

The sequence ends here. I don’t want to say anything else to spoil the film. But this point here is the crux - the crucial point of the decision. The point where Alex connects to another person, and that Peter offers his empathy, and by doing this he can move on beyond the point of difficulty.  

Empathy in counselling 

I don’t think Peter Croft is a trained counsellor, but he provides the conditions that Carl Rogers' theorised were necessary for change: skills of empathy, unconditional positive regard, and exudes a grounded sense of congruence about who he is. We all meet people like this in our lives. In our work, my hope is that we can be that person for someone else when they come to the crux in their lives.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Glasgow G2 & Falkirk FK1
Written by Dr Philip Simon Glen, C. Psychol, Chartered Counselling Psychologist
Glasgow G2 & Falkirk FK1

Simon Glen
Counselling Psychologist.

I work in private practice in Glasgow with Psychology Scotland.

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