Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling

Imagination: An Essential Dimension of a Counselor's Empathy

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling

Imagination: An Essential Dimension of a Counselor's Empathy

Article excerpt

As a component of an integral model of empathy, a counselor's imaginative faculty contributes to empathically understanding a diverse range of clients. Discussion of the literature and the therapeutic implications of imagination in counseling, including a case study, provide a humanistic perspective for using the counselor's imaginative potential.


The extremest resources of the imagination are called in to lay open the deepest movements of the heart.

(William Hazlitt, 1817/1906, p. 131)

From a humanistic perspective, a counselor's imagination has the potential to render a deeper empathic understanding of a client and capture the uniqueness of the individual. The imaginative capacity of a counselor evokes images and emotional reactions when attempting to envision what it is like to be another person. As a construct, the imagination involves a creative and active endeavor on the part of the counselor to facilitate entrance into the world of the client (Margulies, 1984, 1989). By listening to the personal stories that a client shares, a counselor's imagination is activated while also providing access to the individual's human condition. As an aspect of a counselor's internal experiencing, the imagination modality often enhances the utilization of empathy with individuals from diverse and less familiar backgrounds. Thus, the imagination is not necessarily restricted by the life experiences of the counselor, and in various ways may transcend them (Watson, Goldman, & Vanaerschot, 1998).

Yet, despite its potential therapeutic utility, the counselor's imaginative faculty has only received minimal attention in the counseling literature (Frank, 1978; Hart, 1999; Margulies, 1984, 1989; Vanaerschot, 1997). This observation is in contrast with the extensive material available that focuses on a client's use of imagery, imagination, and fantasy in counseling (Cormier, Nurius, & Osborn, 2009; Lusebrink, 1990; Sheikh, 1984; Singer, 2006; Singer & Pope, 1978). This article reviews relevant literature relating to a counselor's use of imagination and empathy, reiterates an integral model of empathy, and clarifies the therapeutic implications of the imaginative function of the counselor.


Empathy in the counseling relationship has proven to be an essential element for promoting therapeutic change across almost every treatment orientation (Clark, 2007; Hartley, 1995; Kottler, Montgomery, & Marbley, 1998). Within a humanistic framework, the respectful cultivation of a facilitative counseling relationship promotes the exploration of meanings in the subjective experience of diverse clients (Hansen, 2009; Pearson, 1999). With an enhancement of client empathic understanding, there is generally an increase in trust and open communication, satisfaction and compliance in treatment, and positive therapeutic outcome (Feller & Cottone, 2003; Norcross, 2010). A client's experience of feeling deeply understood has a direct relationship to the extent of a counselor's empathic listening while maintaining appropriate psychological boundaries (Feller & Cottone, 2003; Myers, 2000).

Carl Rogers (1975) was pivotal in advancing a recognition of the potency of a high degree of empathy in counseling by entering the private perceptual field of the client and sensing a person's explicit and implicit meanings. Rogers emphasized the counselor's empathic understanding of the internal frame of reference of a client and the importance of communicating this experiencing to the individual. According to Rogers, a counselor should, in some sense, put one's self aside in order to enter another's world without bias or prejudice. In contrast with this view, it is our position that the counselor's self has a potential to function as an essential tool for empathically understanding a client. In particular, the counselor may creatively use his or her imagination as a subjective component of empathy within the counseling experience. …

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