Respond to the Context, Not Just the Words

A good empathic response is based not just on the client’s immediate words and nonverbal behavior. It also takes into account the context of what is said, everything that “surrounds” and permeates a client’s statement. This client may be in crisis. That client may be doing a more leisurely “taking stock” of where he is in life. You are listening to clients in the context of their lives. The context modifies everything the client says.

Consider this case. Jeff, a white teenager, is accused of beating a black youth whose car stalled in a white neighborhood. The beaten youth is still in a coma. When Jeff talks to a court-appointed counselor, the counselor listens to what Jeff says in light of Jeff’s upbringing and environment. The context includes his family, the people he interacts with in his neighborhood, the racist attitudes of many people in his blue-collar neighborhood, the sporadic violence there, the fact that his father died when Jeff was in primary school, a somewhat indulgent mother with a history of alcoholism, and easy access to drugs, the “cultural voices” he has listened to with regards to blacks, and the cultural voices he has listened to at school and at church. Jeff is what he is in part because of all the cultural influences in his life. The following interchange takes place.

JEFF: I don’t know why I did it. I just did it, me and these other guys. We’d been

drinking a bit and smoking up a bit—but not too much. It was just the whole thing.

HELPER: Looking back, it’s almost like it’s something that happened to you rather than something you did, and yet you know, somewhat bitterly, that you actually did it.

JEFF: More than bitter! I’ve screwed up the rest of my life. It’s not like I got up that morning saying that I was going to bash someone that day.

The counselor’s response is in no way an attempt to excuse Jeff’s behavior, but it does factor in some of the environmental realities. Later on he will help Jeff challenge himself to decide whether he is to remain a victim of his environment in terms of the prejudices he has acquired, gang membership, family history, and the like or whether he has the convictions, the will, and the guts to do something about it.

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