The Use of Empathy in Human Services: Strategies for Diverse Professional Roles

By Bayne, Hannah B.; Pusateri, Cassandra et al. | Journal of Human Services, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Use of Empathy in Human Services: Strategies for Diverse Professional Roles


Bayne, Hannah B., Pusateri, Cassandra, Dean-Nganga, LaShauna, Journal of Human Services


The human service profession is characterized as a broad and varied field that draws on many disciplines in order to meet the diverse needs of individuals, groups, and communities (National Organization of Human Services [NOHS], 2009). These needs can include limited access to services, mental health concerns and challenges, and unemployment. To effectively respond to these needs, human service professionals are required to fulfill many roles including, but not limited to, direct service worker, advocate, administrator, and evaluator (Neukrug, 2013). Regardless of the role assumed by the human service professional, the ability to demonstrate basic empathy is required to effectively provide services to a wide variety of populations in diverse settings. Therefore, this article provides an overview of empathy, describes the human services roles of direct service worker, advocate, administrator, and evaluator, and explores empathy as an effective tool in service delivery.

Overview of Empathy

The concept of empathy has existed for centuries. However, it was not until the 1900's that the definition of empathy was used to describe the process of connecting with another's experience in the context of mental health treatment (Clark, 2004; Feller & Cottone, 2003; Pigman, 1995). Carl Rogers was pivotal in establishing empathy as a core condition of the therapeutic process (Clark, 2004; Rogers, 1957), describing it in the following way:

To sense the client's private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the "as if" quality-this is empathy, and this seems essential to therapy. To sense the client's anger, fear, or confusion as if it were your own, yet without your own anger, fear, or confusion getting bound up in it. (p. 99)

Another conceptualization of empathic communication portrays it as a continuum of basic, additive, and subtractive responses (Carkhuff, 1969; Ivey, Ivey, & Zalaquett, 2010). Through basic empathy, the helping professional accurately reflects the content of the client's message and conveys a sense of understanding. In contrast, subtractive empathy, which is seen as unhelpful to the relationship building process, occurs when the helping professional's response does not address or capture the content of the client's message. Additive empathy involves reflecting content beyond the level the client was able to communicate, capturing deeper meanings and/or broader themes. This form of response, if accurate, can help clients achieve new insights and may facilitate movement towards new ways of thinking about issues (Carkhuff, 1969; Neukrug, Bayne, Dean-Nganga, & Pusateri, in press).

The benefits of empathy have been well documented within research on counseling and the therapeutic process. Empathy is oftentimes regarded as the cornerstone of the therapeutic process among mental health professionals, as it facilitates the building of rapport and a strong therapeutic alliance (Clark, 2010; Corey, 2005; Elliott, Bohart, Watson, & Greenberg, 2011; Feller & Cottone, 2003; Glauser & Bozarth, 2001; Hartley, 1995; Lux, 2010; Neukrug, 2011; Rogers, 1957; Sinclair & Monk, 2005). When empathy is a part of the client-clinician relationship in a therapeutic setting, clients report benefits above and beyond traditional modalities. For example, empathy was found to be a moderately strong predictor of positive therapeutic outcomes such as reduced client distress, client satisfaction, and positive outcomes in group therapy settings (Elliott et al., 2011). In addition, the integration of empathy has been found to reduce client anxiety and is related to client's ownership of personal change (Angus & Kagan, 2009).

Though these conceptualizations of empathy are helpful, the application of empathy in the human service field is often different from traditional counseling and psychotherapy in that human service professionals are not usually focused on therapeutic change in clients. …

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