What is empathy?

two people sit together on a bench, the man's arm wrapped around the woman as he comforts her.Empathy has been described in different ways: walking in another's shoes, entering into another person's frame of reference or having the ability to experience life as the other person does by entering the person's world of thoughts, feelings, emotions and meanings.

In counselling, empathy is an expression of the regard and respect the counsellor holds for the client whose experiences may be quite different from that of the counsellor.

The client needs to feel "held", understood as well as respected. To hold a client therapeutically means the counsellor is capable to accept and support the client through any issues, concerns, problems she/he can bring.  The ability to empathize with another is enhanced by an alert attentiveness to facial expressions, body language, gestures, intuition, silences and so on.

Sympathy, on the other hand, is not empathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. It is to create sorrow in oneself in response to the perceived sense of another. When we feel sympathy for someone we might view them with pity. While pity makes a victim of the sufferer, empathy empowers them: "I have a sense of your world, you are not alone, we will go through this together".

Carl Rogers(1969), the founder of person-centered counselling, concluded that the important elements of empathy are:

  • the therapist understands the client's feelings
  • the therapist's responses reflects the client's mood and the content of what has been said
  • the therapist' tone of voice conveys the ability to share the client's feelings.

Finally, it is only when you can really be open, clear, sensitive to the emotions and feelings of the other than authentic care begins.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Bloomsbury WC1B & Bedford MK40

Written by Gherardo Della Marta

Bloomsbury WC1B & Bedford MK40

Gherardo Della Marta BACP counsellor in private practice in W10, NW1, WC1B in London

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