For Counselors, How To Show Empathy: 3 Steps & 1 FormulaMay 6th, 2010
In my work as a university professor teaching graduate students how to be counselors, the single biggest worry of new counselors was “what if I do something wrong.” As I work with more experienced counselors, social workers, child abuse counselors, sexual assault advocates and victim assistance counselors, the single biggest worry is “what if I do something wrong.” The focus of both novice and experienced counselors is on themselves, often viewing everything as about me, me, me. This is missing the mark. Counselors need to be humble in their communication with the client. Everything needs to be about the counseling client. The most effective method for keeping the interaction about the counseling client is for the counselor to use empathy.
Advanced Communication Skill: Empathy
The term empathy was first used in 1909 by E. B. Titchener referring to an “instinctive tendency we have to feel ourselves into the things we perceive or imagine” (Gantt, 2005, p. 1). Empathy involves a counselor feeling or sharing the emotional state of the client. It’s differentiated from sympathy where one “feels-for” someone. Empathy is “feeling-with” someone. As a therapeutic technique, empathy facilitates effective communication and promotes a stronger relationship between client and counselor.
In my work with counselors who want to create meaningful relationships with clients, I teach advanced communication techniques for conveying empathy to clients.
3 Steps for Showing Empathy
Step 1: Create a safe and nurturing environment for the client. This is both literal and figurative. The area should be uncluttered and private. The counselor should be a calming presence.
Step 2: Use encouraging behaviors to prompt the counseling client to share more information about his/her life circumstance. These include non-verbal cues such as open body posture and verbal cues such as “um,” “I see,” and “tell me more.”
Step 3: Truly listen to the client’s words and observe non-verbal cues. Every single ounce of attention needs to be focused on the client. Try to see where the client is coming from and what s/he is experiencing.
Formula for Showing Empathy
Once the counselor has created a safe and nurturing environment and the client has opened up about what is going on in their life, the counselor can accurately reflect the client’s feelings. Identify the key emotions of the client and restate the emotions back to the client to clarify and focus attention on the client’s feelings. The basic formula for displaying empathy:
You feel…..(name the emotion expressed by the client)
because…..(name the thoughts, experiences, and behaviors the client has mentioned).
One may want to include a disclaimer beforehand such as “let me see if I have this right” or “please tell me if this is accurate.”
Through the use of the advanced communication skill of empathy, counselors can continue to follow their noble calling of helping others and creating meaningful relationships with clients.
Gantt, E. E. “Empathy.” Encyclopedia of Human Development. 2005. SAGE Publications. Newbury Park, CA.