Empathy is not Sympathy

As a Therapist when confronted with a situation where empathy is needed it is important to be aware of how we use empathy, which can at times be confused with sympathy.  In actual fact, the definition of empathy  is 'Gaining a clear sense of how the client sees the world and their experience in it'.  The core condition of empathy is used in Person Centred Practice and although this sounds simplistic , it is in fact one of the most difficult practices to incorporate into a therapeutic session.  This is simply because the therapist has to use themselves to facilitate the process with the client.  The responses from the therapist have to be genuine.  The client does actually sense when the therapist is pretending to care - essentially if the therapist is genuinely with them whilst they venture on this dark and treacherous journey through the clients exploration of themselves.

It is quite enlightening when working with children and teenagers who question openly the way that they are experiencing the therapist in the session.  A number of children are aware of the voice used in responding to them, this gives them cues as to how present you are within the session.  

In our client work, it is important to be aware of listening to the clients story without placing judgement or interpretation.  This is achieved by attending to the clients process by mirroring, reflecting, and giving them a sense of acceptance  by using a tone which is none judgemental.  It is important that the client becomes aware that the counsellor is not there to judge but there to facilitate a process of acceptance. If empathy and acceptance can be modelled by the counsellor whilst in the counselling room, this in turn allows the client to relate more openly and fully outside of the sessions.  However the empathy has to be genuine, and to achieve this it is important to explore the clients process in relation to our own.

In using empathic responses, this is done by implicitly stating - “am I understanding you correctly?” since it is important to verify the accuracy of our empathic understanding. The client needs to  have the opportunity to confirm or reject our understanding of their process.

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