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Empathy in Counseling: How to Show Empathetic Understanding

What is Empathy and Why is it Important in CounselingDisplaying empathy shows that you, as the counselor, are listening, understanding, and experiencing what the client is sharing.

After all, building a complete appreciation of clients’ experiences, triggers, and behaviors is essential to counseling. Recognizably sharing their feelings encourages them to dig deeper, strengthen the therapeutic alliance, and boost the likelihood of a successful treatment outcome.

And yet, “you must experience empathy before you can express it,” writes counseling experts Jeff and Nancy Cochran (Cochran & Cochran, 2015, p. 48).

This article explores the skills and techniques counselors can adopt in session with their clients to develop and show empathic understanding.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions and have empathy. It will also give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.

Defining Empathy in Counseling

“Providing a therapeutic relationship will always involve deep caring, respect and empathy for the anxiety and suffering of another human being” (Cochran & Cochran, 2015, p. 17).

And yet, expressing empathy within a counseling session involves more than just words; the counselor must communicate a deep understanding and display a personal connection with the client.

It requires more than providing solutions. Focusing too early on what you, as a counselor, can do to address your clients’ problems may get in the way of sharing experiences and showing empathy. If you find yourself searching for a solution as they talk, you may have strayed too far from empathizing and listening (Cochran & Cochran, 2015).

Instead, the client’s emotional pain must be allowed and accepted, as only then will it change. The relationship between counselor and client must be one of empathy, presence, and acceptance (Greenberg, 2011).

Why Is Empathy Important in Counseling?

Importance of empathyTherapeutic relationships formed during counseling guide clients to a safe place where they can face, experience, and own their anxiety and upset.

And yet they need to experience empathy and acceptance to find the motivation and peace they need to be empowered to make choices and take responsibility (Cochran & Cochran, 2015).

Indeed, that relationship “is seen as being curative in and of itself in that the therapist’s empathy and acceptance promote breaking of the isolation, validation, strengthening of the self, and self-acceptance” (Greenberg, 2011, p. 68).

And yet, empathy starts outside the session with how we view ourselves.

To have the capacity for empathy, we must not, as counselors, shape who we are based on the person we believe others want us to be. Seeking external validation limits our potential and self-actualization. Valuing ourselves through our being allows us to become who we want and create a therapeutic environment and experience for clients to learn naturally and rediscover themselves (Cochran & Cochran, 2015).

Indeed, research reported by the American Psychological Association confirmed that empathy, defined as a “sensitive understanding of the patient’s feelings and struggles; seeing them from the patient’s point of view,” is one of several factors crucial to a strong therapeutic alliance (American Psychological Association, 2019).

Empathy & Positive Psychology – A Good Fit?

Positive psychology recognizes the importance of emotional intelligence to our psychological wellbeing and growth and the potential of developing emotional skills and empathy through related interventions. After all, emotional awareness and expression are building blocks for creating that understanding and strengthening our feelings for one another (Lomas, Hefferon, & Ivtzan, 2014).

Empathy is vital for all our valued relationships. Positive psychologist Tim Lomas and colleagues describe it as “the ability to communicate understanding of another person’s experience from that person’s perspective” (Lomas et al., 2014, p. 159).

The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology also recognizes its value in making lives worth living, defining empathy as “an other oriented emotional response elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone else” (Snyder, Edwards, Marques, & Lopez, 2021, p. 418).

While not the easiest of definitions, we can further break down positive psychology’s view of empathy as:

  • Taking a strong interest in the other person’s positive wellbeing
  • Experiencing joy at another’s good fortune
  • Evoking altruistic motivation
  • Belonging to other-oriented feelings, including tenderness, soft-heartedness, and sympathy
  • Involving feelings ‘for’ another person

At times, positive psychology appears to distance itself from some of the more populous interpretations of empathy, including inferring another’s psychological state, projecting oneself onto their situation, and feeling what another feels (Snyder et al., 2021).

And yet, the difference is subtle and possibly ‘academic’ for the counselor in session. We may not be undergoing the very same upset, sorrow, or fear as our clients, but by being empathic, we are most likely experiencing our interpretation of such feelings. And in doing so, forming a stronger, more helpful connection, boosting the therapeutic alliance and the potential for a successful treatment outcome.

Examples of Empathic Responses, Skills & Barriers

Examples of empathic responsesAgreeing on the tasks and goals of therapy requires a thorough understanding of the client and what might be helpful to them—it is ultimately the “enactment of empathy” (Greenberg, 2011, p. 69).

Empathy skills

Empathy is more than just communication; it is about challenging self-perceptions, finding joy in making connections, and furthering communication. And it requires you as a counselor to become more open to your own and your client’s feelings and to make them visible in your relationship with them (Greenberg, 2011; Cochran & Cochran, 2015).

– Finding ways to express empathy

Empathy can be expressed in many ways, yet is typically a combination of the following (Cochran & Cochran, 2015):

  • Matching the client’s tone: if they say they feel hurt and show it, then match it with your tone.
  • Facial expression and body language: don’t maintain a poker face. Let your client see what they have said affects you by indicating it in your face, hand gestures, and how you hold your body.
  • Naming feelings: words are powerful tools. Use them to name the feelings your client is experiencing. For example:

“You are so angry; you can hardly sit still.”
“I can hear the pain and upset in your voice.”
“You feel so mad about this.”
“It’s like you are battling uphill every day.”

– Self-reflection

Self-reflection can be a powerful way of developing loving-kindness. Indeed, techniques and tools such as gratitude journals and focusing on three good things from the last twenty-four hours encourages us to open up to the positive impact others have had on our lives and create the openness required to develop empathy (Lomas et al., 2014)

– Advanced reflection of feelings

Closely observing and actively listening to clients can help the counselor or therapist become aware of subtle, underlying messages. After all, clients, like the rest of us, may repress, suppress, or otherwise avoid feelings—especially uncomfortable ones.

Deep empathy helps clients articulate what they are experiencing. Richard Nelson-Jones suggests counselors and therapists ask themselves (modified from Nelson-Jones, 2014, p. 184):

What is our client only half telling us?
What are they hinting at or toward?
What might they be saying in a confusing way?
What is hiding behind, or implied by, this explicit message?

Sometimes the therapist acts on ‘hunches,’ intervening to help the client share more than they intended. At other times, they hold back, letting the client’s story unfold uninterrupted.

– Therapeutic listening

A large percentage of the counselor’s time is spent listening – a vital skill for building and maintaining empathy. Demonstrating to each client that the counselor knows and understands them–in increasing depth–must be communicated with feeling.

The following communication skills do’s and don’t’s help improve communication, build on the therapeutic alliance, and develop empathy (modified from Cochran & Cochran, 2015):

Do’s

  • Use your body language
    Listening with empathy is a way of being. When doing so, it is apparent in your body language. For example, leaning in, arms and legs uncrossed, communicates you are interested in what the client is saying and empathizing with their feelings.
  • Share your perception of their communication
    You cannot fully know what the client is going through, yet reflecting back how you perceive their emotional position shows empathy.
  • Show understanding using declarative statements
    When the client is clear in what they say, make sure that you respond with equally transparent declarative statements, such as “I understand that you are irritated by your partner’s actions.”
  • Be prepared to accept corrections
    You are demonstrating empathy if you have decided you have nothing more to learn. Even if your understanding is justified based on what your client has told you, and they later reject your thoughts, showing respect and letting them correct you will create a deeper bond and improve your understanding of their position.
  • Interrupt your client with care
    Consider whether your interruption will help your client share how they feel – perhaps by paraphrasing what they have said so they can move forward. Reflections, while often helpful, can harm communication when excessive or if their tone does not signal empathy.
  • Let your client own their silences
    Following a reflection, the client may go silent – let them own it. They may be readying themselves to go deeper and share very personal experiences or feelings or may be considering what you have said – having been taken by surprise.

Don’t

  • Allow a hierarchy to form
    Counseling builds on equality – your observations and reflections are not more important than what the client has to share. Only they truly know how they feel.
  • Ask questions
    Use questioning only in rare circumstances, and do not end reflections by asking for something. Questions typically focus more on the counselor’s needs than the clients – satisfying their desire not to be misunderstood. Otherwise, when asked something, the client may try to answer whether or not it is something they need to communicate.

Suggested read: Things therapists should not do.

Types of empathy

At least three types of empathy can help you build stronger and healthier relationships with clients. They include (Jeffrey, 2016; Cochran & Cochran, 2015):

  • Cognitive empathy
    Improves our ability to communicate because it focuses on what the other person may be thinking.
  • Emotional empathy
    Or ‘affective empathy’ is our capacity to share what the other person is feeling. Taking on another’s emotions can help us build stronger emotional connections with them.
  • Compassionate empathy
    Or ‘empathic concern’ is about helping the other person take the actions required to move forward. It might be about the client adopting coping mechanisms or working together to set goals.

Cultural empathy

Inclusive cultural empathy is described as having two defining features (Garcia, Yuhwa, & Maurer, 2012):

  • An “empathic counseling relationship values the full range of differences and similarities of positive and negative features as contributing to the quality of that relationship in a dynamic balance” (Garcia, Yuhwa, & Maurer, 2012, p. 2).
  • Culture is defined broadly as the client’s ethnographic nationality and ethnicity, demographic (age, gender, lifestyle, etc.), status (educational, economic, and social), and formal and informal backgrounds (Garcia, Yuhwa, & Maurer, 2012).

And while research has shown clinical skills to be essential, cultural empathy ensures counselors understand the factors that influence client identity.

Empathy barriers

Empathy can be as limited by what we do as much as what we do not do:

– Quietening our minds

Unless we quieten our minds during client sessions, our thoughts will impede forming empathic therapeutic bonds. Practicing mindfulness can help us focus on the client’s feelings and experiences rather than our inner chatter and self-doubt (Cochran & Cochran, 2015).

– Inappropriate reflection

Repeating back to your client what you have understood is important. “When you feel strong emotion hit you from your client, let that be the prompt to reflect” (Cochran & Cochran, 2015, p. 43; Nelson-Jones, 2014).

– Worrying if you are liked

The therapeutic bond is vital in counseling. Yet, time spent wondering if the client likes us will not help reach a positive outcome – indeed, it may get in the way of building and maintaining empathy. After all, if your client is eager to share, they most likely already respect and value the bond created (Cochran & Cochran, 2015; Nelson-Jones, 2014).

Understanding Empathy vs Sympathy vs Compassion

While empathy, sympathy, and compassion have many different definitions, it is broadly accepted that they have elements shared with other prosocial behavior (modified from Jeffrey, 2016):

  • Empathy
    Whether cognitive, emotional, compassionate, or behavioral, empathy involves understanding a person from their frame of reference rather than our own.
  • Sympathy
    Sympathy is a broad term that signals experiencing another’s feelings rather than empathizing with them. Sympathy can take a self-oriented perspective.
  • Compassion
    Compassion has been described as “a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.” Like sympathy, it can arise when something bad happens to another person (Jeffrey, 2016).

Whether empathy is part of compassion or vice versa, they are closely related. Either way, many in social sciences treat them as variations of a broad affective phenomenon and collectively refer to them as empathy (Jeffrey, 2016).

How to Show Empathy in Therapy

Types of nonverbal communicationEmpathy supports the building and maintenance of the therapeutic alliance and can be found in each of the following actions and techniques:

Self-disclosure

While sharing too much as a counselor can move the focus away from the client, a balanced approach to self-disclosure is a valuable empathy skill. Indeed, sharing experiences with the client can help ‘normalize’ their feelings while reminding the counselor they may have walked similar paths (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

Assigning tasks

Between-session tasks help clients practice what they have learned. When they report back on their successes (and failures), the counselor better understands what remains difficult; their growing empathy sheds light on helpful future exercises and techniques to employ (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

Role-playing

Conducting role plays with clients can help them share, even if indirectly, how they feel. For you, as a counselor, it can encourage greater understanding, awareness, and empathy for what they are going through. Alternating roles offer insight into how each ‘player’ feels and why such emotions are important (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

Live observation

During a session, it can be difficult for clients to explore feelings fully regarding situations they find difficult. Taking the clients into environments they find problematic–while maintaining an appropriate degree of control–can help the counselor empathize with their emotional responses and understand what is prompting unwanted behavior (Nelson-Jones, 2014).

PositivePsychology.com’s Empathy Resources for Counseling

We have various resources available for counselors wishing to develop their empathy and use it within counseling sessions:

Free resources include:

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • Strength collisions
    When our strengths collide with others, we may perceive the other person’s strength as a weakness and ours as superior and absolute. We may also believe our behavior is the ‘right’ way to deal with the situation that confronts us. This exercise helps the client consider another person’s perspective by stepping into their shoes and can increase empathy.
  • Transcending Pain: Using Personal Suffering to Benefit Others
    Channeling our feelings into compassionate service and helping others who are suffering provides an enhanced sense of meaning that is positively associated with happiness, physical health, wellbeing, and increased prosocial behavior.

This exercise helps clients understand the value of their past emotional wounds, hurts, and disappointments and uses them to help others who are also suffering.

A Take-Home Message

When someone has decided to seek help, there is most likely no quick fix—attempting to find and implement one in a hurry will not create an environment conducive to empathetic listening.

Instead, showing that you are listening and understanding what the client has to share displays empathy and that you are engaged and invested in them as a person.

And yet, to express empathy in a counseling session, you must have experienced it first-hand. As a counselor, you need to have lived experiences of emotions before communicating a profound understanding and displaying a personal connection with the client.

Experiencing joy at the good times in another’s life and emotional upset at the traumas they face shows a strong interest in their wellbeing. When evident in what we say and how we express ourselves, the client is encouraged to go deeper and share what has so far remained private and hidden.

We hope ‌this article helps counselors, in their professional and personal life, increase awareness of their own and others’ emotions and create stronger relationships.

Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.

References

  • American Psychological Association. (2019) What the evidence shows. (2019). Retrieved July 4, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/11/ce-corner-sidebar.html
  • Cochran, J. L., & Cochran, N. H. (2015). The heart of counseling: Counseling skills through therapeutic relationships. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Garcia, B., Yuhwa, E. L., & Maurer, K. (2012). Cultural Empathy: Implications of Findings from Social Work Objective-Structured Clinical Observation for Field Education.
  • Greenberg, L. S. (2011). Emotion-focused therapy. Washington, DC: American psychological Association.
  • Jeffrey, D. (2016). Empathy, sympathy and compassion in healthcare: Is there a problem? Is there a difference? Does it matter? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 109(12), 446-452.
  • Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Ivtzan, I. (2014). Applied positive psychology: Integrated positive practice. Los Angeles: SAGE.
  • Nelson-Jones, R. (2014). Practical counselling and helping skills. London. Sage.
  • Snyder, C. R., Edwards, L. M., Marques, S. C., & Lopez, S. J. (2021). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Comments

What our readers think

  1. Lisa Chapman

    Hi,

    I enjoyed gaining this insight from your article, which I will be referencing in a class discussion on “Empathy” in counseling at Ohio Christian University. There is a lot of thought put into your work in this article, and I do hope to show future clients that I am being empathetic toward their situations. Personally, I have much experience of what most clients might be facing, which, hopefully, will help to empathize with them in an effective manner. I feel that genuine experience makes it much easier to help clients through similar experiences. It allows them to acknowledge that they are not alone in the struggles they face in life. The information you provide in this article has been incredibly helpful for me as a student and my journey towards becoming a counselor for teens and adolescents. Thank you! 🙂

    Many Blessings,
    Lisa Chapman
    A college student at Ohio Christian University; received access to this article through course instructor: Applying Skills for Helping Professionals, Online Course.

    Reply
  2. Petronillah

    Wow just came at the right time .Am on my last year on counselling .

    Reply
  3. stephen mann

    Please refer to Dr. Peter Breggin and his website and organization International Center for the Study of Empathic Therapy

    Reply
  4. Peter MacFarlane

    Hey,
    So glad you liked our article. Your writing seems balanced and intelligent. The utility of empathy in psychotherapy is, as you suggest, very likely change-inducing from a number of directions. You might take a look at the concept of alliance.

    Reply
  5. Ana Banayan

    Hi,
    I am a registered dietitian and was delighted to see your site. I plan to incorporate some of your suggestions in order to be more effective in my counseling sessions.
    Much success in all you do
    Ana

    Reply
  6. Joy Butler

    Hi, you did a great job of explaining the need of empathy in counseling. Personally, I believe that even just listening simply means you do empathize with and care about them. Emotional support is better than financial support! Thanks for your kindness in sharing this information, you do really care!

    Reply
  7. barry samet

    Very insightfull and practical!

    Reply

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