Now that we have given an outline of our understanding of empathy and the impact it has in a therapeutic setting, what should we do with this information?
Firstly, we should ask ourselves if we do indeed display empathy. It is okay if the answer to that question is no, and for some that may be the case. It is better to know that you are not displaying empathy than to go on thinking you are, all the while providing a sub-par therapeutic atmosphere for your clients.
The next step then, is to determine the method by which we learn to empathize. Some argue that empathy is something we are born with, but I believe that we all have the tendency toward empathy, we simply choose –whether consciously or not – to do away with it. Acting empathetically can prove difficult when you do not have a relationship with the person, or you are dealing with your own troubles. It is most difficult however, when you have never been shown yourself. This is often the case. We live in a society, especially now, that shies away from intimacy, and emotional expression. We are taught briefly in school that “active listening” is the best way to be heard, but as we grow older we begin acting selfishly, we start looking for our turn in the conversation, rather than listening to and reacting to what our companion is saying. We briefly address their points, and then delve right into what we have been ruminating about while we impatiently await our turn.
This undoubtedly results in animosity and feelings of invalidation. It can be a frightening, and anxious experience to share a part of yourself with another person. There is the looming fear of judgment; the fear that what has to be said will change the relationship dynamic. Because of these two things, people often hold back the things they want to say. This of course, leads the individual to ruminate upon their feelings, which in turn motivates somatic symptoms, as well as more pathological mental symptoms to develop. In order to avoid such things from occurring, we must learn how to be empathetic.
Rogers gives us the best example of what it means to be empathetic, as well as the best evidence for our ability to learn empathy (Rogers, 1951, 1959, 1974). He mentions in his lecture on empathy, that what he found most helpful when he was unable to provide the client with any active assistance was to actively listen, and to truly hear what the client was saying. He found this to be the most helpful passive approach to therapy (1974). Harlene Anderson notes in her article “Some Notes on Listening, Hearing and Speaking And the Relationship to Dialogue” that: “clients say they want to be listened to and heard. In the majority of my conversation with clients about their experience of therapy and whether it was helpful, the most common factor in unsuccessful therapies was not being listened to or heard” (Anderson, 2003). If this is what clients are saying, then we should be listening.
Learning how to be empathetic.
This is somewhat of a daunting task, considering the society in which we are living. I have talked before about how our relationships are very shallow means-end relationships, and this has essentially conditioned us to act very selfishly. This is expressed through our conversation styles, our impatience with each other and our inability to truly listen and feel what others are feeling. It would be too much of a commitment to begin discussing all the ways these attitudes are presented throughout society, so I will avoid such a digression. However, it should be noted that our connectivity can be feigned through slacktivism, and shallow social interactions (attending movies, or shopping centers are just a few examples). This is of course, not to say that we should not be allowing ourselves less intimate interactions, in fact, these lay the groundwork for any substantial relationship we are to have. What I am saying however is that our reliance on these interactions is what causes us to have an inability to delve below surface level.
How can we learn something like empathy? I propose a sort of conditioning. To begin with, we must force ourselves to be empathetic in every situation we encounter, even those that are shallow by nature. Empathy should not be forced in situations in which it is not warranted. What I mean to say here is that you should not seek out opportunities to be empathetic, rather, you should be ready to be empathetic in every situation. Part of empathy is not forcing someone to express themselves if they do not feel it is necessary. By preparing yourself to be empathetic, you are on the way to realizing it.
To give you an example, imagine you are walking through the mall with your friend. She mentions she wants to buy a new dress, and she sees one in the shop window that she really likes. Instead of a typical response which may run something like: “I like that dress too, I am also looking for a new dress because I have a party to attend,” keep the focus on her, mention that you think the dress would look good on her, and ask her why she is looking for a new dress. Do not mention yourself or your interests. This shows her I heard what you said, and I would like to know more. It builds trust, and confidence in your friend. It shows her that what she has to say is important, and that you are listening to what she has to say. It may seem simple, and though this is a very shallow exchange with little emotional weight, you are paving the way for future intimacy.
This sort of exchange not only allows your friend to feel more comfortable and more trusting, it also conditions you to act in a more empathetic way whenever possible. Empathy is not only meant for therapy.
Some things to consider as you teach yourself to become more empathetic:
- practice active listening
- delve below surface level whenever possible
- paraphrase what the person has said, and validate what they have said
- do not interject with solutions to problems, or with your own input
- whenever possible, steer the conversation towards the other, if you are finding it difficult to listen and you find yourself waiting for your turn let the other person know.
- Be as honest and as accepting as possible
By practicing all 6 items on our list daily, it will become second nature to you. You will find it much easier to be empathetic, and you will not have to think about it. Empathy should be incorporated into our everyday lives, as well as into therapy. By conditioning ourselves to act in such a way we may also encourage others to do so, which of course, can only produce positive results.
Empathy is a difficult concept for some. We feel as though we are being empathetic, yet our thoughts are straying, our eyes are wandering, or we are inadvertently invalidating the feelings of others. By practicing empathy, and becoming more empathetic we allow ourselves to grow, and we allow others to grow, in a positive and healthy environment. Empathy is such an essential tool in the therapy kit, and it should be used as often as possible, whether you believe you have the skill or not.
American Personnel and Guidance Association. (1974). Carl Rogers’s 1974 lecture on empathy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMi7uY83z-U&feature=share&list=PL9w3l7GkGUr1yxU4s2PiggyCbOO3XfpRf
Anderson, H. (2003). Eight Annual Open Dialogue Conference: What is Helpful in Treatment Dialogue? Tornio, Finland.
Rogers, Carl. (1951). Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. London: Constable. ISBN 1-84119-840-4.
Rogers, Carl. (1959). A Theory of Therapy, Personality and Interpersonal Relationships as Developed in the Client-centered Framework. In (ed.) S. Koch,Psychology: A Study of a Science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the Person and the Social Context. New York: McGraw Hill.