Counselling in Oxfordshire

Bill Imlah :: Counselling in Oxfordshire

Blog » What is empathy?

13 May 2012

Empathy is the natural ability to sense what is going on emotionally for the other person.

It means having a felt sense of what is going on for the other person.

It is the ability to put yourself in their shoes and have an awareness of what they are feeling, how they think, how they see the world.

It's more than just sympathy (which is about imagining how you would feel in their situation)  - its about getting how they feel  - sensing the other person’s world “as if” it were your own, without losing that “as if” quality.

Empathic understanding is a natural ability that, barring mental health issues, we're all born with. We all have a sensitivity and ability to pick up what’s going on for others. However, sometimes life experiences lead us to mistrust or ignore this sense.

As a child, if we get mixed messages from others about how they are feeling – if they tell us they’re happy when they look sad, for example, or if they behave with hostility but tell us they mean well – then we may learn to mistrust our own ability to understand empathically, rather than mistrust those around us.

Being aware of how others are feeling is not the same as having those feelings ourselves, and an important aspect of working with empathic understanding is not to muddle up your own feelings with those of the other person.

This means that self-awareness is very important to maintaining accurate empathic understanding. If you experience loss then it might be easy to confuse the other person’s feelings of loss with your own. And if you have been putting your own difficult feelings out of our awareness, then you might find yourself overlooking similar feelings in the other person.

A a professional counsellor I continually working to maintain and develop my own self-awareness to help ensure that my empathic understanding can be accurate, and to prevent it being too distorted by issues of my own that I might be unaware of.

Although it’s possible to have accurate empathic understanding, this is not the same as saying “I know how you feel”. Each one of us has our own view of the world and experiences life events in our own unique way, so we can never fully know what it is like to be that other person. Your counsellor might say “I feel sad when you talk about that”, rather than “I think that’s sad” or “You must feel sad”. As counsellors, we can at times have have a strong sense of what’s going on with the other person, but try to make sure that we make it clear that it’s our sense of what’s going on, not necessarily their reality.

“Being empathic is:
1. Listening sensitively.

2. Trying to make sense of what you hear.

3. Understanding the other person in their own terms.

4. Checking to see if you’ve got the meaning right with all its subtleties.”

– Pete Sanders

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