What does empathy mean in counselling?

Empathy makes one feel understood; it tells the client that the counsellor is hearing, feeling, and experiencing what they are saying

Counsellor showing empathy to client

Empathy holds a fascinating place in the world of business. In a world that so often lauds those who can close off their emotions, a strong, empathetic presence can feel difficult to come by in myriad professions. However, in the world of counselling and psychology, this idea is flipped on its head, with the connection between a client and their mental health specialist often being an essential aspect of care.

Empathy is an important skill for anyone seeking a counselling master’s degree or a future in counselling and comes in a multitude of different forms and meanings. Ideally, empathy makes the client feel understood. It tells the client that you are hearing, feeling, and experiencing what they are saying—without overstepping boundaries and making it about yourself, or trivialising their struggles in any capacity.

How to develop and show empathy

Everyone has different levels of empathy, for a variety of reasons. Some lack empathy due to genetics, upbringing or other factors. Luckily, empathy is something that can be developed at any stage of life.

It is possible to develop empathy by stepping out of your comfort zone, connecting with new people, examining your biases and prejudices, receiving and hearing constructive criticism from those around you, having difficult conversations, and reading about different struggles and situations, both familiar and unfamiliar to you. It also helps to be in tune with yourself and able to recognise your emotions, admit your faults, and be honest with yourself—even when the truth hurts.

You can practise showing more empathy by simply communicating with people as usual, but while stepping out of your comfort zone slightly and having an open mind. If most of your friends and colleagues have a similar lifestyle to you, or your social media has become a bit of an echo chamber, expand your social circle to include people from all walks of life. Remember that you don’t need to relate to someone to respect them. Become an active listener. Expanding your research and your reading material can open you up to all kinds of people and their situations.

Why empathy is important in counselling

As a counsellor, you’re meeting with people who are usually at a low point in their lives and are struggling with things out of their control. Sometimes they need advice and support, sometimes they just want to be seen and heard. Most importantly, they need to feel safe and understood. Effective counselling begins when a client feels safe to really open up and express themselves.

People with high levels of empathy generally have better relationships, and that includes the relationship between counsellor and client. When that relationship is secure and when the client feels safe and empowered, they will feel more confident to be open and honest.

The main thing a client needs from you is understanding, and true understanding comes from the ability to put yourself in their shoes.

Empathy also allows you to “read the room” with more accuracy, and observe the non-verbal cues the client expresses. Being sensitive to their emotions and state of mind allows a counsellor to respond appropriately, with the right level of emotion and intensity. Their actions may also provide more context, which can help a counsellor respond in a way that best fits the situation—and to know when not to respond.

Empathy barriers

There are a few barriers to being able to develop and express empathy. Some people naturally have lower levels of empathy or struggle to develop it for various reasons. Some have high levels of empathy but can’t express it adequately. One of the reasons for this may be burnout. People with high levels of empathy can be negatively impacted by life events experienced by clients. That’s why it’s important to practise self-care and establish boundaries.

Similarly, another barrier is desensitisation. People who have been in the industry for a long time or have witnessed one too many devastating things can become desensitised, often subconsciously to protect themselves and their minds and hearts from trauma and distress. They may even “turn off” their empathy. This can make clients feel that they aren’t being met with empathy.

Something else that counsellors struggle with is their desire to help everyone. We can’t always say the perfect thing, we can’t personally help with every problem, and we can’t save everyone in the world. It is natural that the more you see suffering, the more you feel you need to help everyone. Don’t burn yourself out trying to do the impossible. Rest reassured that you’ve helped at least one person!

What ISN’T empathy?

It is important to distinguish between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for them and viewing them with pity. It perceives sorrow from the client and in turn makes them a victim of their suffering. Empathy, on the other hand, can empower the client—it tells them, “you are not alone”. It reassures them that what they are feeling is valid and real.

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