BECOMING COMPETENT AND CONFIDENT IN RESPONDING WITH EMPATHY: PRINCIPLES AND GUIDELINES
While helpers need competence in communication skills in general, they especially need competence in communicating empathy to their clients. Active listening is wasted without empathic responding. If empathic responding is not part of your everyday communication skills, you have a problem because if they are “dragged out” to be used in helping, they can sound phony. Then essential genuineness is out the window. Here are a number of principles that can guide you as you respond with empathy. Remember that these guidelines are not formulas to be followed slavishly.
Use Empathic Responses Throughout the Helping Process
Responding with empathy is useful at every stage and in every task of the helping process. Communicating and checking understanding is always helpful. Here are some examples of helpers responding with empathy at different stages of the problem-management process covered in Part III.
Problem clarification and opportunity identification A teenager in his third year of high school who has just found out that he is moving with his family to a different city. A school counselor responds, “You’re miserable because you have to leave all your friends. But it sounds like you may even feel a bit betrayed. You didn’t see this coming at all.” The counselor realizes that he has to help his client pick up the pieces and move on, but sharing his understanding helps build a foundation to do so. The teen goes on to talk in positive terms about the large city they will be moving to and the opportunities it will offer. At one point the school counselor responds, “So there’s an upside to all this. Big cities are filled with things to do. You like theater and there’s loads there. That’s something to look forward to.”
Discovering and evaluating options for a better future A woman has been discussing the trade-offs between marriage and career. At one point her helper says, “There’s some ambivalence here. If you marry Jim, you might not be able to have the kind of career you’d like. Or did I hear you half say that it might be possible to put both together? Sort of get the best of both worlds.” The client goes on the explore the possibilities around “getting the best of both worlds.” It helps her greatly in preparing for her next conversation with Jim.
Choosing actions to accomplish goals A man has been discussing his desire to control his cholesterol level without taking a medicine whose possible side effects worry him. He says that it might work. The counselor responds, “It’s a relief to know that sticking to the diet and exercise might mean that you won’t have to take any medicine.... Hmm.... Let’s explore the ‘might’ part. I’m not exactly sure what your doctor said.” The helper recognizes the client’s aversion to taking medications, but then seeks further clarification.
Program implementation issues A married couple has been struggling to put into practice a few strategies to improve their communication with each other. They’ve both called their attempts a “disaster.” The counselor replies, “OK, so you’re annoyed with yourselves for not accomplishing even the simple activelistening goals you set for yourselves.... Let’s see what we can learn from the ‘disaster’” (said somewhat lightheartedly). The counselor communicates understanding of their disappointment in not implementing their plan, but, in a more positive vein, focuses on what they can learn from the failure.
Responding with empathy is a mode of human contact, a relationship builder, a conversational lubricant, a perception-checking intervention, and a mild form of social influence. It is always useful. Driscoll (1984), in his commonsense way, referred to empathic responses as “nickel-and-dime interventions that each contribute only a smidgen of therapeutic movement, but without which the course of therapeutic progress would be markedly slower” (p. 90). Because empathic responses provide a continual trickle of understanding, it is a way of providing support for clients throughout the helping process. It is never wrong to let clients know that you are trying to understand them from their frame of reference. Of course, thoughtful listening and processing can lead to empathic responses that are much more than “nickel-and-dime” interventions. Clients who feel they are being understood participate more effectively and more fully in the helping process. Because responding with empathy helps build trust, it paves the way for the helper to use stronger interventions, such as inviting clients to engage in self-challenge.