Exploring Empathy: Part II

Misguided Empathic Attempts

It’s surprisingly easy to try too hard to express empathy, to completely miss your client’s emotional point, or otherwise stumble in your efforts to be empathic. Classic statements that beginning therapists often use, but should avoid, include {{34 Sommers-Flanagan,John 1989;}}:

1.  “I know how you feel” or “I understand.”

In response to such a statement, clients may retort: “No. You don’t understand how I feel” and would be absolutely correct. “I understand” is a condescending response that should be avoided. However, saying “I want to understand” or “I’m trying to understand” is perfectly acceptable.

2.  “I’ve been through the same type of thing.”

Clients may respond with skepticism or ask you to elaborate on your experience. Suddenly the roles are reversed: The interviewer is being interviewed.

3.  “Oh my God, that must have been terrible.”

Clients who have experienced trauma sometimes are uncertain about how traumatic their experiences really were. Therefore, to hear a professional exclaim that what they lived through and coped with was “terrible” can be too negative. The important point here is whether you are leading or tracking the client’s emotional experience. If the client is giving you a clear indication that he or she senses the “terribleness” of his or her experiences, reflecting that the experiences “must have been terrible” is empathic. However, a better empathic response would remove the judgment of “must have” and get rid of the “Oh my God” (i.e., “Sounds like you felt terrible about what happened.”).

The Evidence Base for Empathy

There’s a substantial body of empirical research addressing the relationship between empathy and treatment process and outcomes. This research strongly supports the central role of empathy in facilitating positive treatment outcomes.

In a meta-analysis of 47 studies including over 3,000 clients, Greenberg and colleagues (2001) reported a correlation of .32 between empathy and treatment outcome. Although this is not a large correlation, they noted, “empathy . . . accounted for almost 10% of outcome variance” and “Overall, empathy accounts for as much and probably more outcome variance than does specific intervention” (p. 381).

Elliot and colleagues (2011) also conducted a more recent meta-analysis. This sample included: “224 separate tests of the empathy-outcome association” (p. 139) from 57 studies including 3,599 clients. They concluded (based on a weighted r of 0.30) that empathy accounts for about 9% of therapy outcomes variance.

Based on their 2001 meta-analysis and an analysis of various theoretical propositions, Greenberg et al., identified four ways in which empathy contributes to positive treatment outcomes.

  1. Empathy improves the therapeutic relationship. When clients feel understood, they’re more likely to stay in therapy and be satisfied with their therapist.
  2. Empathy contributes to a corrective emotional experience. A corrective emotional experience occurs when the client expects more of the same pain-causing interactions with others, but instead, experiences acceptance and understanding. Empathic understanding tends to foster deeper and more trusting interactions and disclosures.
  3. Empathy facilitates client verbal, emotional, and intellectual self-exploration and insight. Rogers (1961) emphasized this: “It is only as I see them (your feelings and thoughts) as you see them, and accept them and you, that you feel really free to explore all the hidden nooks and frightening crannies of your inner and often buried experience” (p. 34).
  4. Empathy moves clients in the direction of self-healing. This allows clients to take the lead in their own personal change—based on a deeper understanding of their own motivations.

Although it’s always difficult to prove causal relationships in psychotherapy research, it appears that empathy contributes to positive treatment outcomes {{705 Duan 2002; 4508 Elliot 2011; 1047 Greenberg 2001;}}. In fact, some authors suggest that empathy is the basis for all effective therapeutic interventions: “Because empathy is the basis for understanding, one can conclude that there is no effective intervention without empathy and all effective interventions have to be empathic” (Duan et al., 2002, p. 209).

Concluding Thoughts on Empathy

Empathy is a vastly important, powerful, and complex interpersonal phenomenon. People express themselves on multiple levels, and due to natural human ambivalence, can simultaneously express conflicting meanings and emotions. Greenberg and associates (2001) captured the challenges of being empathic with individual clients when they wrote:

Certain fragile clients may find expressions of empathy too intrusive, while highly resistant clients may find empathy too directive; still other clients may find an empathic focus on feelings too foreign. Therapists therefore need to know when—and when not—to respond empathetically. Therapists need to continually engage in process diagnoses to determine when and how to communicate empathic understanding and at what level to focus their empathic responses from one moment to the next. (p. 383)

The preceding description of how it’s necessary to constantly attune your empathic responding to your individual client probably sounds daunting . . . and it should. When we add cultural diversity to the empathic mix, the task becomes doubly daunting. Nevertheless, we encourage you to embrace the challenge with hope, optimism, and patience. It’s only by sitting with people as they struggle to express their emotional pain and suffering that we can further refine our empathic way of being. Like everything, empathic responding takes practice, something Rogers (1961) recommended over 50 years ago.

 Even though that last section was titled, Concluding Thoughts, Part III is coming soon:)

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