Empathy has been shown to have a huge impact on the outcomes of therapy, writes Brisbane psychotherapist Jessamy Henricksen …
Eminent American psychologist, Carl Rogers, proposed that therapists are more helpful to clients if they allow the client to find their own solutions to their problems. This means that often the therapist plays the role of a mirror for the client, providing a source of reflection.
Coinciding with this view, Rogers argued that in order for therapists to help clients in their steps to change, there were certain core conditions required: empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard for the client. Of the three, empathy has been shown to have a huge impact on client-change, establishing a therapeutic alliance and treatment outcomes.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy plays a vital role in how we bond with one another, with empathic people having the ability to imagine themselves walking in another person’s shoes, and understanding how and what another person may be feeling or experiencing.
Commonly people confuse sympathy and empathy as being the same, and therapists are not immune. However sympathy differs entirely from empathy, and is what happens when we feel and express that we are feeling sorry, sorrow or pity for other individuals’ experiences, circumstances and situation. Although both empathy and sympathy play important roles in how we communicate with one another and how we connect, when it comes psychotherapy, empathy has been found to be the more important factor in treatment outcomes.
Empathy in Psychotherapy
Empathy, and a therapist’s expression of empathy towards a client, is one of the key distinguishing features of client-centred psychotherapy.
Although there has been great discussion and research in empathy eliciting client change, there is still confusion over the exact definition of what empathy is within the context of psychotherapy.
This lack of a global definition of empathy in psychotherapy may stem from the fact that empathy, and the purpose of empathy within psychotherapy, differs between therapists, as well as their therapeutic approach.
Some psychotherapists see empathy as a personality trait, in that they view it as a disposition to feel what other people feel, or understand someone from within. This is a common view held by humanistic theory and those who practice within a Rogerian framework.
Others see empathy as more of a situation-specific state of feeling in order to understand another person’s experience. This is a common view in cognitive-behavioural theory, where empathy is seen as a process that aids in nurturing a collaborative alliance between client and therapist.
The Role of Empathy in Psychotherapy
Despite the differing views of what and how to use empathy in therapy, in essence empathy in psychotherapy refers to a therapist’s ability to perceive a client’s experience, understand the associated feelings to that experience, and openly convey understanding to the client, in a manner that is helpful and results with the client feeling understood, heard and respected.
Empathy in psychotherapy offers the client a non-judgemental space which enables them to enter into further reflection, as well as the potential to facilitate change and self-acceptance.
It also assists with developing the therapeutic alliance, the relationship that forms between the client and the therapist. This relationship is an essential aspect of client-centred therapy and is the means by which both the therapist and client engage with one another to foster change, which can only effectively occur when empathy is expressed.
Research Supports Empathy in Psychotherapy
Since empathy was theorised as a key driver for client change and an essential part of any psychotherapeutic process, researchers have taken a keen interest in studying the mechanisms of empathy in therapy. However, again due to the lack of a universal definition of empathy in the context of psychotherapy, researchers have experienced challenges in creating appropriate measures for understanding the empathic therapeutic process.
What has been shown, is that empathy can account for greater client treatment outcomes compared to specific interventions, therapist’s orientation, or other therapists’ qualities such as credibility.
Research has also found that a client’s perception of empathy by a therapist is an important mechanism of change within psychotherapy; empathy has been linked to increased adherence to treatment, and shown to influence greater satisfaction when it comes to the therapeutic alliance.
Signs Your Therapist is Empathic
Spotting a therapist who is empathic is not hard, as most therapists are in the profession due to being naturally empathic and compassionate people.
Empathic therapists are with you in the session while you share your stories, often holding the space for you in order to provide a comfortable and safe environment for you to disclose your problems. Empathic therapists will not judge you with what you have talked about, and commonly have a great deal of respect for their clients. They will often convey empathy through clarifying, summarising and checking in on what you are discussing, in order to get a clear picture of your experience and to be certain they are understanding you correctly.
An empathic therapist will give you their complete attention, and at times may appear to be mirroring your own body language and posture which happens due to actively being present and listening to you. They are not likely to interrupt you without apologising or giving reason, they are not likely to talk about themselves for extensive periods of time, they are most certainly not likely to be passing judgement, and will definitely not be easily distracted by things that may be going on around and outside of the session. Instead, an empathic therapist makes you, the client, the focus of the session at all times.
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