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Empathy

The capacity to vicariously experience and understand the thoughts and feelings of another person by putting oneself in that person's place.

While most forms of psychotherapy require some degree of empathy on the part of the counselor or therapist, the client-centered therapy pioneered by Carl Rogers places particular emphasis on this quality as part of the therapeutic experience. Instead of looking at the client from outside (external frame of reference), the client-centered therapist attempts to see things as they actually look to the client (internal frame of reference). Throughout each therapy session, the therapist demonstrates what Rogers termed "accurate empathetic understanding," showing sensitivity to the client's feelings through active listening that shows careful and perceptive attention to what the client is saying. The therapist employs standard behaviors common to all good listeners, making frequent eye contact with the client, nodding in agreement or understanding, and generally showing that he or she is listening attentively.

One unique way client-centered therapists demonstrate empathy with the client is through a special method called reflection, which consists of paraphrasing and/or summarizing what a client has just said. This technique lets therapists check the accuracy of their perceptions while showing clients that they are paying careful attention to and are interested in what is being said. Hearing their own thoughts and feelings repeated by another person can also help clients achieve new levels of insight and self-awareness. Clients generally respond to reflection by elaborating further on the thoughts they have just expressed. Empathy constitutes a major portion of the therapeutic work in client-centered therapy. By helping clients feel better about themselves, it gives them the self-confidence and energy to deal actively with their problems.

Further Reading

Rogers, Carl. Client-Centered Therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951.

———. On Becoming a Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

———. A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Kenneth John William Craik Biography to Jami (Mulla Nuruddin ʼAbdurrahman ibn-Ahmad Biography