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empathy-four-elements_quotesgramdotcomCarl Rogers developed person-centred therapy out of a need to develop therapy that worked for the returnees from the Korean war. He discovered that the type of therapy provided was less important than the qualities of the therapist.

He found that, for therapy to work you needed three key ingredients:

  • empathy, the ability to see things from the client’s perspective;
  • unconditional positive regard, a clunky phrase meaning that you positively accept your client for who they are without wanting to change them or judge them;
  • congruence, a word more often applied to triangles that means the therapist must be genuine, that her words, deeds, actions and body language must all present the same personality, must be congruent with one another, demonstrating by example feeling comfortable in one’s identity (or “être bien dans sa peau” as the French say, being comfortable in your skin).

He later added a fourth:

  • presence, being there for your client in such a way that there are moments of real connections, when everything clicks.

We focused on empathy. Trying to describe what that means feels like a group thesaurus session. It’s easy to say words or phrases that mean similar things but narrowing this and other words down is harder than it sounds.

Although we started saying empathy is walking in someone else’s shoes, it’s more like walking alongside them, sharing the journey but with the recognition that you can’t actually fully understand someone else’s perspective although you can understand sufficiently. Acknowledgement and understanding are key words that keep coming up.

What demonstrates empathetic listening? In a very basic fashion, just paying attention and being seen to be paying attention. Beyond that it’s how you react to their story, acknowledging what is being said, demonstrating warmth and giving them the space to say what they want to say without hurrying them along. The client might not maintain eye contact with the therapist but when they do look it’s important that the therapist is looking at them and not staring out the window looking bored.

What hinders empathy? A lack of connection, a pre-existing prejudice, impatience, parallels with your own personal stuff, the cut-off of the session end.

How does it feel to receive empathy? It feels comforting/supportive/safe that someone is listening without rejecting you or your story. Feeling safe might enable you to open up more (rather than initial self-censorship when you’re not sure); there’s a building of trust.

Writing this down makes it all sound so simplistic. Don’t I do this anyway? When we were talking about conversations not being the same as the ones with your friends when you do offer them advice and tell them what to do I was thinking, but I don’t do that. I practice these techniques in normal personal conversations.

I know this is an introduction but it all sounds so simplistic and superficial. The theory, such as it is, that we are discussing seems almost irrelevant. I feel superior to the discussion.

The practical was a lot more interesting. A five minute monologue each way, on this occasion with minimal prompts such as body language and non-verbal comments but no words. I partnered with S who I liked a lot more at the end of it. My initial reaction to her on the first week was that she was slightly too enthusiastic but actually we bonded.


Listening to someone without being able to interject produced two streams of thought in my head: the first was listening to what she said and mentally ticking off shared or overlapping experiences that I understood or could relate to; the second was trying to list the comments and queries that I wanted to ask but couldn’t. I was too busy trying to get a grip on these steams to put together what S was saying other than as a sequence of events. I couldn’t integrate them into a picture. I wanted to touch her at one point to show sympathy, just by putting my hand on her knee sort of thing. I didn’t but it was really hard not to say something that shows sympathy. It was the emotions that were expressed that were more important than the story and facts although sometimes the facts mask the emotions. Indeed if you’re used to multiple therapist you can (as I have done) rattle off your story in a very factual way designed to convey information and ignoring the feelings.

When we swapped roles (and in fact I started speaking) I found it really difficult just to keep going for five minutes. It’s not as if I can’t talk endlessly but I found myself slightly going round in circles rather than progressing. It felt as if there wasn’t enough feedback to know in which direction to drive the conversation. Also her listening face seemed put upon, which it was as she was trying to show that she was listening without responding naturally.  I’m quite used to sitting in conversations and doing more listing than talking as I’ve often done it when feeling uncomfortable and it’s become habitual.

I was wondering about what to do next term already. I’m feeling a bit bored by the lack of depth but not sure that I want to do the full course although I could just do the next and stop. I want more in depth but I also don’t want to commit. Or am I afraid of commitment, as the time-honoured cliché goes?