Thinking about empathic counselling

I was seated in the living room of a friend where a small group of us were just finishing up our monthly meeting of dream sharing and discussion.  As is often the case, we were all marvelling on how much easier it was to make sense of our seemingly chaotic dreams when we are talking about them with others.  I was aware that it wasn’t simply others that was crucial to my ability to interpret my dream, but rather the presence of some particular others.  Those others needed to be understanding, what in psychological language is described as empathic.

What empathic counselling feels like

Why did I feel that way?  Well, it might help to first take a look at what empathy means.  It is commonly defined as that ability to “stand in another’s shoes: to know what it feels like to be another at a particular moment.  The American psychologist, Carl Rogers, who did more than anyone else to bring the importance of empathy to our attention, described his own experience of receiving empathy:

“When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mould you, it feels damn good…When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on. It is astonishing how elements which seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens. How confusions which seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.”

That suggests to me there is something in my nature that requires being heard, a requirement as deeply felt, perhaps, as hunger.  I need, hope for, long for and insist upon it.

A contemporary therapist/author, Greet Vanaerschot, lists five consequences of feeling genuinely heard:

  • that I am acceptable and valued in the eyes of another
  • that I have a legitimate claim to be just who I am
  • that it is all right to feel what I feel
  • that I am not alone in experiencing the world as I do
  • that I can trust my own, often undervalued and ignored, experience to guide me in life

The author seems to be saying that the simple act of listening to another with the focused intent of understanding him or her on their terms plays an important role in helping a person move beyond the stuck cycle of self-blame and punishment.  It contributes to freeing a person to step out into the world, which had previously been seen as unfriendly but which now can be reclaimed as a place to which he or she feels they belong.  Listening empathically to another or to oneself is a way of welcoming and creating a sense of belonging.