Empathic Understanding Is Critical
Empathic understanding is critical to the person-centered approach, because it refers to the understanding of the client's world from the client's point of view. This is no easy task because it is hard for counselors to set aside their biased views of the world in an attempt to see things through the client's eyes. All other actions counselors take will be inappropriate without empathy because they would then be based on inaccurate perceptions of the client. This construct allows practitioners to respond effectively and assures clients that their confidence in the counselor is justified.
Knowing the content of what a client says and knowing the feelings behind the words are the two essential elements of empathic understanding. The words and reasoning of the abuser striking his wife are important information that a counselor can interpret. The feelings, on the other hand, may come out in words, like anger, hate, or frustrated, or in other ways, like reddening of the face, facial expressions, posture, laughter, or tears. Empathic understanding combines all of these verbal and nonverbal clues to understand clients.
Empathic understanding has two important tasks that practitioners must accomplish to make it a useful construct: (a) understanding and (b) accurately conveying that understanding. The most obvious of these is that counselors must set aside their own beliefs and enter the client's world so that they can understand. Setting aside disdain for the abusive spouse above is no easy task, but not doing so will taint any understanding of the person with the counselor's biases.
Understanding alone has minimal value as a counseling technique. The client must also be aware of just exactly what the practitioner understands. This second dimension is crucial for empathic understanding to be useful. Empathic understanding only improves the helping relationship when the client clearly recognizes what the counselor understands, so the counselor must effectively communicate that understanding back to the client in words and actions.