What does empathy mean?
Empathy is having a good understanding of another person’s feelings without passing judgment on the appropriateness or otherwise of the feeling. It is about demonstrating an empathic understanding of the client’s world as seen from the inside, “to walk in his or her shoes.”
It is not easy to see things from another person’s point of view, though a trained counsellor or psychotherapist appear to have somewhat little difficulty in displaying and understanding the nature of empathy during the therapeutic process.
As a counsellor, one would hope that a prerequisite for being effective in the role is being able to practice and convey the skill of empathy in the client-counsellor relationship. Of course, no one can completely comprehend what another person is going through but being empathic ensures that we as counsellors are listening to our clients and addressing their concerns as they present them. Usually the more extensive a counsellors background, the greater the understanding of other people’s situations, though no one person can fully understand what other people have been through, or are going through. It is not necessary for a counsellor to have the exact same lived experience that his or her client does to understand what they present with to support them in a clinical setting. It will be evident from the client’s response if and when the counsellor is successfully showing good empathic skills. The client may nod their head in response or display a positive verbal answer. Being aware of these signs will put the counsellor in a much better position to relate to challenging clients and building rapport and a good therapeutic relationship.
I believe that empathy is one of the most important skills that the counsellor can bring to the therapeutic relationship. With good empathic skills, the client will feel as though he or she is being heard and supported, hence gaining trust, building rapport and stimulating self-exposure and discussion.
In my experience, understanding, feeling and experiencing “with” the client in their presence, is crucial to the therapeutic relationship, supporting them to express, explore and understand their feelings and themselves as a person. I believe for the counsellor, this is something that comes with life experience. We cannot completely understand what another person is experiencing but fortunately that’s not necessary to be able to help them through the therapeutic process. If counsellors show that they are trying to understand the client experience, the relationship then has a good chance of continuing and of being successful.