What is empathy?
When we work in psychotherapy we value the use of empathy as a therapeutic tool. Especially in the Humanistic and Existential traditions we value the use of empathy to get closer to the client’s experience.
Carl Rogers describes empathy as the desire to understand the client’s world as if it was our own. He says the therapist wants to aim to ‘enter the client’s private perceptual world and [become] thoroughly at home with it’ (1980: 142).
The metaphor of ‘feeling at home’ indicates more of an aim than a goal. We can never truly know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, but we need to seek to get a flavour of it.
How does it work?
The first step will be to explore their experience. The exploration can only happen if we suspend our judgements and try to listen with an open heart. To do that we need to become aware of our assumptions and put them into metaphorical brackets — this whole process is called ‘epoché’ (Van Deurzen, 2011).
This implies that the process of epoché is a precondition for empathy. It then becomes clear how we need to work on ourselves before we can truly empathise with ‘the other’. This is one of the reasons why counsellors and psychotherapists often chose to be in therapy themselves.
How to use it
In my experience the relation between the process of epoché and the ability to empathise is incremental. This means that the more I become aware of my judgements and assumptions, the more I can suspend them to create the therapeutic intervention.
This is true not just for a therapist-client relationship, but for every interaction.
The more we practice empathic listening, the more we can really get a sense of the other person. A metaphor I particularly like for this is to think about empathy as the attempt to find the echo of the other person in myself.
Carl Rogers, C. (1980). Way of Being. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Van Deurzen, E. (2011). Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: Sage.