Exploring Empathy — Part I


Happy Saturday. This post is the first of a three-part preview of our discussion on Empathy from Clinical Interviewing, 5th Edition.

See: http://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-2012-2013-John-Sommers-Flanagan/dp/1118390113/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1

Empathic Understanding

Empathic understanding is a central concept in counseling and psychotherapy. Rogers (1980) defined empathy as:

. . . the therapist’s sensitive ability and willingness to understand the client’s thoughts, feelings, and struggles from the client’s point of view. [It is] this ability to see completely through the client’s eyes, to adopt his frame of reference, (p. 85) . . .  It means entering the private perceptual world of the other . . . being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person. . . . It means sensing meanings of which he or she is scarcely aware. (p. 142)

Rogers’s definition of empathy is complex. It includes several components.

  • Therapist ability or skill
  • Therapist attitude or willingness
  • A focus on client thoughts, feelings, and struggles
  • Adopting the client’s frame of reference or perspective-taking
  • Entering the client’s private perceptual world
  • Moment-to-moment sensitivity to felt meanings
  • Sensing meanings of which the client is barely aware

A Deeper Look at Empathy

As with congruence and unconditional positive regard, the complexity of Rogers’s definition has made research on empathy challenging. Many different definitions of empathy have been articulated (Batson, 2009; Clark, 2010; Duan & Hill, 1996). According to Elliott, Bohart, Watson, & Greenberg (2011), recent advances in neuroscience have helped consolidate empathy definitions into three core subprocesses:

  1. Emotional simulation: This is a process that allows one person to experientially mirror another’s emotions. Emotional simulation likely involves mirror neurons and various brain structures within the limbic system (e.g., insula).
  2. Perspective-taking: This is a more intellectual or conceptual process that appears to involve the pre-frontal and temporal cortices.
  3. Emotion regulation: This involves a process of re-appraising or soothing of one’s own emotional reactions. It appears to be a springboard for a helping response. Emotional regulation may involve the orbitofrontal cortex and prefrontal and right inferior parietal cortices.

Empathy is an interpersonal process that requires experiencing, inference, and action. In chapter 1 we noted that playing a note on one violin will cause a string on another violin to vibrate as well, albeit at a lower level. In therapy, this has been referred to as resonance. Most people have had the experience of feeling tears well up at a movie or while someone talks about pain or trauma. This is the experiential component of empathy that Elliot et al., (2011) referred to as emotional simulation).

Beyond this physical/experiential resonance, one person cannot objectively know another person’s emotions and thoughts. Consequently, at some level, empathy always involves subjective inference. This process has been referred to as perspective-taking in the scientific literature and is considered a cognitive or intellectual requirement of empathy (Stocks, Lishner, Waits, & Downum, 2011).

Empathy—at least within the context of a clinical interview—also requires action. Therapists must cope with and process the emotions that are triggered and then provide an empathic response. Most commonly this involves reflection of feeling or feeling validation, but nearly every potential interviewing response or behavior can include verbal and nonverbal components that include empathy. The action component of empathy is likely what Elliot et al., are referring to with the term emotional regulation.

Simple guides to experiencing and expressing empathy can help you develop your empathic abilities. At the same time, we don’t believe any single strategy will help you develop the complete empathy package. For example, Carkhuff (1987) referred to the intellectual or perspective-taking part of empathy as “asking the empathy question” (p. 100). He wrote:

By answering the empathy question we try to understand the feelings expressed by our helpee. We summarize the clues to the helpee’s feelings and then answer the question, How would I feel if I were Tom and saying these things? (p. 101).

Carkhuff’s empathy question is a useful tool for tuning into client feelings, but it also oversimplifies the empathic process in at least two ways. First, it assumes therapists have a perfectly calibrated internal affective barometer. Unfortunately this is not the case as clients and therapists can have such different personal experiences that the empathy question produces completely inaccurate results; just because you would feel a particular way if you were in the client’s shoes doesn’t mean the client feels the same way. Sometimes empathic responses are a projection of the therapist’s feelings onto the client. If you rely solely on Carkhuff’s empathy question, you risk projecting your own feelings onto clients.

Consider what might happen if a therapist tends towards pessimism, while her client usually puts on a happy face. The following exchange might occur:

Client: “I don’t know why my dad wants us to come to therapy now and talk to each other. We’ve never been able to communicate. It doesn’t even bother me any more. I’ve accepted it. I wish he would accept it too.”

Therapist: “It must make you angry to have a father who can’t communicate effectively with you.”

Client: “Not at all. I’m letting go of my relationships with my parents. Really, I don’t let it bother me.”

In this case, asking the empathy question: “How would I feel if I could never communicate well with my father?” may produce angry feelings in the therapist. This process consequently results in the therapist projecting her own feelings onto the client—which turns out to be a poor fit for the client. Accurate empathic responding stays close to client word content and nonverbal messages. If this client had previously expressed anger or was looking upset or angry (e.g., angry facial expression, raised voice), the therapist might resonate with and choose to reflect anger. However, instead the therapist’s comment is inaccurate and is rejected by the client. The therapist could have stayed more closely with what her client expressed by focusing on key words. For example:

Coming into therapy now doesn’t make much sense to you. Maybe you used to have feelings about your lack of communication with your dad, but it sounds like at this point you feel pretty numb about the whole situation and just want to move on.

This second response is more accurate. It touches on how the client felt before, what she presently thinks, as well as the numbed affective response. The client may well have unresolved sadness, anger, or disappointment, but for the therapist to connect with these buried feelings requires a more interpretive intervention. Recall from Chapter 3 that interpretations and interpretive feeling reflections must be supported by adequate evidence.

To help with the intellectual process of perspective-taking, instead of focusing exclusively on what you’d feel if you were in your client’s shoes, you can expand your repertoire in at least three ways:

  1. Reflect on how other clients have felt or might feel
  2. Reflect on how your friends or family might feel and think in response to this particular experience
  3. Read and study about experiences similar to your clients’.

Based on Rogers’s writings, Clark (2010) referred to intellectual approaches to expanding your empathic understanding as objective empathy. Objective empathy involves using “theoretically informed observational data and reputable sources in the service of understanding a client” (Clark, 2010, p. 349). Objective empathy is based on the application of external knowledge to the empathic process—this can expand your empathic responding beyond your own personal experiences.

Rogers (1961) also emphasized that feeling reflections should be stated tentatively so clients can freely accept or dismiss them. Elliot et al., (2011) articulated the tentative quality of empathy very well: “Empathy should always be offered with humility and held lightly, ready to be corrected” (p. 147)

From a psychoanalytic perspective, it’s possible to show empathy not only for what clients are saying, but also for their defensive style (e.g., if they’re using defense mechanisms such as rationalization or denial, show empathy for those):

Client: “I don’t know why my dad wants us to come to therapy now. We’ve never been able to communicate. It doesn’t even bother me any more. I’ve accepted it. I wish he would.”

Therapist: “Coming into therapy now doesn’t make much sense to you. Maybe you had feelings about your lack of communication with your dad before, but it sounds like you feel pretty numb about the whole situation now.”

Client: “Yeah, I guess so. I think I’m letting go of my relationships with my parents. Really, I don’t let it bother me.”

Therapist: “Maybe one of the ways you protect yourself from feeling anything is to distance yourself from your parents. Otherwise, it could still bother you, I suppose.”

Client: “Yeah. I guess if I let myself get close to my parents again, my dad’s pathetic inability to communicate would bug me again.”

This client still has feelings about her father’s poor communication. One of the functions of accurate empathy is to facilitate the exploration of feelings or emotions (Greenberg, Watson, Elliot, & Bohart, 2001). By staying with the client’s feelings instead of projecting her own feelings onto the client, the therapist is more likely to facilitate emotional exploration.

A second way in which Carkhuff’s (1987) empathy question is simplistic is that it treats empathy as if it had to do only with accurately reflecting client feelings. Although accurate feeling reflection is an important part of empathy, as Rogers (1961) and others have discussed, empathy also involves thinking and experiencing with clients (Akhtar, 2007). Additionally, Rogers’s use of empathy with clients frequently focused less on emotions and more on meaning. Recall that in his original definition, Rogers wrote that empathy involved: “. . . being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person. . .” (p. 142). And so empathic understanding is not simple, it involves feeling with, thinking with, sensing felt meanings, and reflecting all this and more back to the client with a humility that acknowledges deep respect for the validity of the client’s own experiences.

More to come on this tomorrow in “Exploring Empathy” Part II.

References

Akhtar, S. (Ed.). (2007). Listening to others: Developmental and clinical aspects of empathy and attunement Lanham, MD, US: Jason Aronson.

Carkhuff, R. R. (1987). The art of helping (6th ed.). Amherst, MA: Human Resource Development Press.

Clark, A. J. (2010). Empathy: An integral model in the counseling process. Journal of Counseling & Development, 88, 348-356.

Greenberg, L. S., Watson, J. C., Elliot, R., & Bohart, A. C. (2001). Empathy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 38(4), 380-384.

Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Stocks, E. L., Lishner, D. A., Waits, B. L., & Downum, E. M. (2011). I’m embarrassed for you: The effect of valuing and perspective taking on empathic embarrassment and empathic concern. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41(1), 1-26. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00699.x

 

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