Empathy involves a willingness to lay aside the counsellor's own way of perceiving reality (albeit temporarily) in order to respond, moment by moment, to the varying experiences and perceptions of the client.
It means living for a short time in the client's world, experiencing their thoughts 'as if' they were the counsellor's own - yet without losing the 'as if' factor.
It means entering the client's private perceptual world and becoming thoroughly at home in it and being sensitive to the changing meanings which flow in another person.
It is often described as, 'walking in another person's shoes', or being in their, 'frame of reference'. In the book 'Person Centred Counselling in Action', Mearns and Thorne say, 'Empathy often feels like being on the same train, or camel, as the client. It is the client's journey which the counsellor is joining and staying with, no matter how bumpy it is'.
Do not confuse sympathy with empathy. Sympathy is the act of offering condolence - feeling sorrow or pity. This can be disempowering for the client.
It is important to communicate your understanding to the client and we do this through the use of body language, tone of voice, silence and reflective responses.
The reasons for using empathy as a counselling skill are:
To build the relationship. Entering another's frame of reference communicates a message of respect and regard. It demonstrates that you are really listening. It also provides the support which is vital for building trust and for the client to feel safe.
To stimulate self-exploration as the narrative deepens. Empathy has a quality which enables a client to look beneath the surface into what Mearns and Thorne describe as, 'an edge of awareness' - unknown and deeper feelings. This helps the client gain insight.
To check understanding and perception and allow you and the client to know that you are both on the same journey.
To build self esteem. The message is, 'Someone understands. an significant enough for another person to listen and to
understand me'. It gives the client permission to continue. It says, 'I am with you, please go on'.
To dissolve alienation and reduce isolation as you look with fresh unfrightened eyes at elements of which the client is fearful, angry, confused or ashamed.
If the counsellor is in the client's world, she is less likely to ask too many questions or give advice based upon her own frame of reference.