Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Empathy: An Integral Model in the Counseling Process

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Empathy: An Integral Model in the Counseling Process

Article excerpt

In 1957, Carl Rogers published a classic and provocative article that identified empathy as an essential variable for engendering constructive personality change in the therapeutic process. Empathy, in addition to congruence and unconditional positive regard, has achieved a consensus standing in the professional literature as a core condition in facilitating the treatment relationship in counseling and psychotherapy (Feller & Cottone, 2003; Lambert & Barley, 2002). Although empathy and empathic understanding have been recognized for fostering open communication and trust since early in the 20th century, Rogers and his colleagues brought prominence to the quality of the relationship as a critical factor in successful treatment outcome (Barrett-Lennard, 2003; Duan & Hill, 1996; Wispe, 1987). In a supportive emotional climate, clients frequently experience both a sense of being deeply understood and a diminishment of psychological threat (Clark, 1998; Myers, 2000). With an enhancement of empathic understanding, clients generally increase their level of therapy satisfaction, likelihood of compliance, and involvement in the treatment process (Bohart, Elliot, Greenberg, & Watson, 2002). Over a period of decades, Rogers's definitions and descriptions of empathy continued to evolve while he popularized its therapeutic function in a number of publications (Raskin, 2001).

Although Rogers's comprehensive work on empathy has achieved wide acclaim in counseling, a particular book chapter (see Rogers, 1964), in a volume on behaviorism and phenomenology, is seldom mentioned in the research relating to empathy in a therapeutic context. In an illuminating discussion, Rogers (1964) conceptualized the capacity of individuals to experience empathy from three ways of knowing: subjective, interpersonal, and objective. From a subjective perspective, a person channels empathy in the context of his or her own frame of reference and empathically reacts to personal experiences that occur in everyday life. Related to a subjective modality, Rogers (1964) cited common examples, such as a reaction to unfamiliar food, evaluating one's feelings toward another individual, and experiencing a range of emotions. However, it is important to note that, at this point in his thinking, Rogers did not suggest applications of a subjective way of knowing to the treatment relationship. From an interpersonal perspective, Rogers (1964) emphasized the therapeutic value of a practitioner's accurate perception of the internal frame of reference of a client and communicating this understanding to the person. Seeking to grasp the phenomenological experiencing of a client is a prominent and recurring theme throughout his writings (Rogers, 1951, 1957, 1961, 1964, 1975, 1980, 1986). Maintaining a nonjudgmental attitude, a counselor endeavors to restrain his or her potentially biased perspectives while attuning to the private meanings of a client.

With respect to an objective way of knowing, Rogers (1964) recognized that it is possible to direct a person's empathic understanding toward the reactions of trusted reference groups who represent an external frame of reference. A consensus of observations by qualified and competent individuals, usually one's colleagues, forms a basis for collective understanding. As an example of an objective mode of knowing, Rogers (1964) observed that the equation for the speed of light has been precisely determined using similar operations by prominent physicists. Rogers (1964) also cited behavioral rating scales and empirical tests as other means of objective knowing that involve externally observable behavior. As with his views of a subjective avenue of knowing, Rogers did not specify or endorse counseling applications relating to the objective modality and was consistent in his belief in the importance of minimizing the influence of subjective and objective knowledge channels in direct interactions with a client. …

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