Academic journal article Counseling and Values

How Christian Spiritual and Religious Beliefs Help and Hinder Counselors' Empathy toward Clients

Academic journal article Counseling and Values

How Christian Spiritual and Religious Beliefs Help and Hinder Counselors' Empathy toward Clients

Article excerpt

The critical incident technique was used to examine how counselors' religion and spirituality help and hinder counselor empathy toward clients. Twelve counselors holding Christian beliefs identified 242 helping and 25 hindering incidents that formed 14 helping and 3 hindering categories, Categories reflected counselors relying on a natural connection to their spirituality, drawing from empathic roots in their religion or spiritual experience, and using commonalities shared with clients as a means of empathizing, Implications for research, counselor education, and counseling practice are discussed.


The aim of this study was to examine counselor empathy in depth as it relates to and is influenced by counselor spirituality. Empathy has been found to be the key component of the therapeutic alliance, outweighing techniques in its positive relationship to outcome (Goldfried, Greenberg, & Marmar, 1990). A meta-analysis by Bohart, Elliott, Greenberg, and Watson (2002) on empathy found its place under "effective elements" in Norcross's (2002) Psychotherapy Relationships That Work. These authors argued that "the time is ripe for the re-examination and rehabilitation of therapist empathy as a key change process in psychotherapy" (Bohart et al., 2002, p. 89).

More generally, the quality of the connection between counselor and client has repeatedly been demonstrated as the most consistent element of successful counseling (e.g., Coale, 1998; Fiedler, 1950, 1951; Mitchell, Bozarth, & Krauft, 1977; Patterson, 1984; Strupp, 1978; for reviews of the research, see Horvath & Bedi, 2002; Waddington, 2002). Bozarth (2002) conducted a comprehensive review of the research literature and found that the relationship variables most frequently related to therapeutic effectiveness were the core conditions identified by Rogers (1957), namely, empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. For the purpose of this study, empathy was defined as a quality that requires the laying aside of one's views and values to enter the other's world without prejudice or judgment (Rogers, 1975). The recipient of empathy feels that "someone values him [or her], cares, [and] accepts the person that he [or she] is" (Rogers, 1975, p. 7).

It is broadly claimed that increasing numbers of people are seeking out what is generally termed the transcendent through spirituality and religion (Johnson & Hayes, 2003; Miller & Thoresen, 2003; Myers & Williard, 2003). Although there is a wealth of literature on counseling and spirituality, most research focuses on the integration of faith or spirituality into counseling or on how to work with client spirituality or religious beliefs. There are very few empirical studies on the impact of counselors' religious or spiritual beliefs on their counseling work. Research with Christian counselors primarily addresses the use of religious and spiritual interventions in therapy (Walker, Gorsuch, & Tan, 2005) and the integration of religious beliefs with professional ethics (Evans, 2003).

Beutler et al. (2004) discussed how this gap in the research prevents counselors from obtaining an understanding of ways religious influences may be changing in psychotherapy. This would seem to be important given the growing body of literature on theory and technique in this area in recent years (Miller, 1999; Richards & Bergin, 2000; Shafranske, & Sperry, 2005). Worthington and Sandage (2002) called this a "surprising lack of research" (p. 387) given that therapists generally seem to value spirituality both in therapy and in their personal lives. In a national survey of American Counseling Association members, Kelly (1995) found that seeking a spiritual understanding of the universe was personally important to 85% of respondents.

Definitions in the literature and empirical studies have not consistently provided clear or distinct definitions of religion and spirituality (see Shafranske & Sperry, 2005). …

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