In day-to-day life and in the therapeutic counselling relationship, empathy is a wonderful, loving, kind, wholehearted part of what makes us human and creates connection. For me, empathy is at the very heart of our humanity, helping us forge deep connections with each other. Empathy unites. A lack of empathy divides.
Empathy is understanding how and why someone feels the way they do, walking in their shoes alongside them, seeing the world from their perspective without judgement or criticism. Empathy is accepting the feelings of others even if we think we might feel differently ourselves in those circumstances, and even when we can see that some, or many, of those feelings in that moment might be far from helpful or healthy.
We are never there to judge. In the first instance, we are there to accept. Changing and modifying behavioural and emotional patterns comes later. Our acceptance of a person’s feelings is prerequisite to any changes we might later be in a position to help them make.
In a counselling relationship, authentic, healthy empathy seeks to help others without making assumptions, ensuring our own similar feelings and experiences don’t get in the way. There are many books that explore the emotion of empathy, one of my favourites is by the fabulous Brené Brown. Her book ‘Rising Strong’ defines empathy very clearly, “Empathy is the ability to understand what someone is experiencing and to reflect back that understanding […] empathy is understanding what someone is feeling, not feeling it for them. If someone is feeling lonely, empathy doesn’t require us to feel lonely too, only to reach back into our own experiences so we can understand and connect. We can fake empathy, but when we do, it’s not healing or connecting […] Empathy is the antidote of shame and it is the heart of connection.’ (p.155 Brown, 2017)
Empathy can be expressed non-verbally as well as verbally, through gesture, tone, body language, with our eyes, facial expressions, saying very little or even nothing at all. In humanistic counselling, we would call this ‘holding the space.’ This is an effective technique that I use in my classroom too with my students; instead of interrupting, listening.
Empathy doesn’t require us to fully, deeply experience the emotions of others. As helpers, counsellors, educators, friends and family members we can’t always feel as others do, especially if we are with vulnerable people or people in need daily.
If we were to always take on other people’s emotions and absorb their stress, it would lead to emotional burnout for us. We would be overwhelmed a lot of the time. And in the end, not much good to anyone. But that doesn’t mean that when we don’t absorb were not responding empathically. By establishing and working within healthy, self-aware boundaries, empathy is possible without feeling and absorbing another’s emotions.
Let’s be clear, not everyone is an empath or has empathic abilities. Far from it. Many struggle to tune into and align themselves with how another person might be feeling. But, for those of us whose job or familial circumstances require empathy, we do need to practice it with self-care and caution.
We must be able to recognise where own emotions begin and end, and where those of our clients, children, friends or partner start. We must be able to return to our own lives and our ‘frame of reference’ without bringing with us the emotional energy of others. Easier said than done, I know. It takes practice, skill and training. But, these boundaries are ultimately what will keep us safe emotionally, mentally and even physically.
For Carl Rogers, the founder of Person-Centred counselling, Empathy was interwoven with Unconditional Positive Regard and Congruence/Genuineness to create the three Core Condition cornerstones on which his approach was founded. These three together act as a fundamental base on which trust can be built. Without any one of them, the element of trust can struggle to take root. And trust, as we know, is essential in any strong, enduring, healthy relationship.
Empathy is a gift we, as counsellors, can give our clients, those who need our help, “When the other person is hurting, confused, troubled, anxious, alienated, terrified: Or when he or she is doubtful of self-worth, uncertain as to identity, then understanding is called for. The gentle and sensitive companionship of an empathic stance . . . provides illumination and healing. In such situations, deep understanding is, I believe, the most precious gift, one can give to another.” (Rogers, 1980)
For us all, when we feel seen, heard, valued, and supported, our self-esteem begins to grow. Self-doubt is gradually replaced by self-confidence, and our journey to self-actualisation; fulfilling our true potential, realising our dreams and living our lives to their fullest capacity, gains momentum and we can start living more authentic, purposeful lives.
The same is true for students, for all learners young and old. I've had many years seeing this in action both in school and in my private practice. I believe that as educators, teachers in the classroom, schools leaders and learning support assistants, we all need to work with the children in our care with empathy. When we don’t, when we cannot see their experience frrom their perspective, we cannot create authentic connections with the children we’re educating. Because without connection, we cannot build positive relationships, and without mutually positive relationships, the fullest experience of whole-brained teaching and learning cannot take place, just like the healing jurney in counselling.
I believe that empathy is the bedrock for both counselling and education.
We have unique perceptions and responses to all events, to our learning, to the world around us, even when experiences are similar or appear the same. Feelings and emotions alter perceptions of events and how we view ourselves. So wether counselling or teaching, our clients and students will each have a unique interpretation of what is happening around/to them. It is because we're all so different that it is imperative to step into our clients’ or students' unique frame of reference. Even if they cannot, we can start to identify their ‘real self’ as a human being or as a learner. I now use this approach as a matter of instinct when I teach and counsel.
When we see past our clients’, students, best friend's own self-concepts, we can start to see who they really truely are, not the version of themselves that they have learnt to present to the world, or who they think they are or ought to be, or have been told they are.
Any personal growth and self-development means discovering who we really are at our very core, our organismic self. This is the version of us, stripped of who we feel we should, or ought to be. It’s the version of who we are that expresses itself freely and authentically without fear.
I believe this is how we should be striving to work within our classrooms. True learning and growth takes place when our students understand who they are as learners, where they want to go and how they are going to get there. For most students, feeling safe enough to reveal their vulnerabilities, perceived weaknesses and their true dreams is not an everyday experience. The classroom environment and the relationship with the teacher must feel safe. We come back to trust and empathy.
How do we nurture and create a safe, trusting, non-judgemental space that enables growth and change? In humanistic psychotherapeutic terms, through Empathy along with the other fundamental core conditions, healing and growth leading to self-actualisation can be facilitated. In this environment, a client or learner can begin to safely explore thoughts, feelings and experiences. Having a cognitive response to our experiences can be incredibly empowering. It increases our understanding of ourselves in different contexts, and ultimately shaping who we are and our understanding of ourselves, ‘I rejoice at the privilege of being a mid-wife to a new personality – as I stand by with awe at the emergence of a self, a person, as I see a birth process in which I have had an important facilitating part.’ (p.5 Rogers, 1961)
I have come to believe that qualities, attitudes and approaches that a teacher is responsible for bringing into the learning space is similar to those of a counsellor in the counselling space. Both are facilitators of specific learning journeys. Both require us to learn about ourselves.
Ballentine Dykes, F., Kopp, B. & Postings, T., 2014. Counselling Skills and Studies. London, UK: Sage Publications.
Brown, B., 2017. Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Penguin Random House.
Cooper, M., 2008. Essential Research Findings in Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: Sage.
Hough, M., 2020. Counselling Skills and Theory. London, UK: Hodder Education.
Rogers, C., 1961. On Becoming a Person. 60th Anniversary ed. London: Robinson.
Rogers, C., 1980. A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
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