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Counsellors talk about ‘empathy’, ‘empathetic understanding’ and ‘empathic following’ often, yet if you are not familiar with those terms, they might seem like a bit of a mystery.  There is also the distinction between ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ which, although covered a lot in counsellor training courses, may not be something those outside that field can appreciate too readily.  I want to write a little bit today about what empathy is – and isn’t – to hopefully give you, my reader, a better idea of why empathy is considered to be so important in the therapeutic relationship.


I guess the basics of empathy are that when I attempt to be empathic with a client I am attempting to ‘get where they are coming from’.  This can be said to be ‘seeing things from their frame of reference’, or ‘walking as if in their shoes’.  This attempt to understand what the client is feeling is different from feeling sympathy towards them, as with sympathy the counsellor would perhaps feel pity or sorrow for someone else’s situation.  The difference is subtle, but key.  In my past work at a children’s hospice, if I were to offer sympathy to a client who had experienced the death of a child, I would be imagining not how it was for the client, but rather would be imagining how I would feel if I lost a child of my own.  It is generally accepted that while empathy is good for the counselling relationship, sympathy can be counterproductive as (for instance in the above example), the focus would be on the counsellor’s reaction to the loss, not the client’s.


Dr. Carl Rogers, founder of the person-centred approach (PCA) to counselling that I practise at Ashwood Therapy, put it like this: “to sense the client's private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the "as if" quality - this is empathy, and this seems essential to therapy*”


I have come to learn that the need to be understood and ‘heard’ is a fundamental part of the human condition.  We all need to know that someone understands our delicate web of experience and our personal situation, though unfortunately such empathy and understanding can be hard to come by for many people.  If we have to first understand ourselves to be able to get a clear picture of where we are, then look at what we want to take forward, and what to let go of in our situation, then having someone who ‘gets us’ is invaluable.


One of the three ‘core conditions’ of the PCA, when empathy is present alongside acceptance and a genuine and honest approach by the counsellor, the client can feel freed to access their own inner resources, and can start the process of healing their own hurt, knowing that in as much as it is possible, someone at least gets what it’s all about - for them.


* The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change.  Journal of Consulting Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1957, 95-103



Rob Oglesby MBACP (Accred) B.A. (Hons) BSc | Ashwood Therapy


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Empathy

Empathy | Ashwood Therapy Blog