How Empathy is used in therapy

Counselling, Advice, Therapist, Silhouette, Chat, Check

We all know what empathy is—the ability to recognize and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. Empathy is our way of helping others by seeing the world in the eyes of another. This way, you’ll be able to truly understand their feeling without bias. In this article, we’ll learn how empathy is used in therapy and counseling.

Empathy in therapy and counseling

Empathy is definitely a requirement in therapy and counseling. Without it, therapists will never be able to truly connect and understand their patients. In normal circumstances, empathy may only be regarded as understanding others’ feelings. But in therapy and counseling, it’s a lot more than that. Empathy, according to therapist Gherardo Della Marta, is “an expression of the regard and respect the counsellor holds for the client whose experience may be quite different from the counselor.”

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This means empathy in counseling does not only mean being aware of the other person’s thoughts, but also absorbing them yourself without bias. Good therapists treat their patients with the utmost respect and with the intent to help them. They never judge or belittle their patients no matter how absurd and ridiculous their words are. Empathy in therapy is also regarded as an active process. Therapists and counselors do not wait for their empathy to kick in when they’re dealing with a patient. They actually concentrate and listen attentively and actively in order to empathize with them.

With that being said, how is empathy broken down when it comes to therapy and counseling?

Elements of Empathy

Woman, Women, Business Woman, Female, People, Person

Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centered counseling, organized empathy into three elements. These are:

  1. The therapist understands the client’s feelings,
  2. The therapist’s responses reflect the client’s mood and the content of what has been said,
  3. The therapist’ tone of voice conveys the ability to share the client’s feelings.

Intensity, Context, and Selective Responding

Fred J. Hanna has mentioned that when dealing with patients, it is important to take note of these three things:

  1. Intensity – responding to the patient’s emotions at the appropriate level of intensity
  2. Context – therapists need to take all aspects into account, not just word and non-verbal behavior.
  3. Selective Responding – Some customers do not feel comfortable discussing their feelings. In this case, it is more effective to focus on behavior instead. Same goes the other way around; if they don’t feel comfortable talking about behavior, focus your attention towards their feelings.
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During successful empathic responses, patients may show signs such as a nod of the head or a positive verbal response. When failed empathic responses occur, patients may seem distant, frustrated and unwilling to talk.

By being aware of these signs, taking care of patients will surely be more effective. Therapists may need to adjust their approach according to the clients’ needs.

By using empathy during interactions with clients, therapists will:

  1. Build the relationship
  2. Stimulate self-exploration
  3. Check understanding
  4. Provide support
  5. Assist communication
  6. Focus attention on the client

Three phases of Empathy

According to Watson et. al, empathy is “active, cyclical process characterized by three phases: empathic resonance, empathic communication, and perceived or received empathy.” In the first phase, therapists dig deeper into their clients’ experiences by getting information from their bodily reactions and inner experience to gain understanding in the deeper level. In the second phase, therapists communicate their understanding to their clients. In the third and final phase, clients receive their empathy which results in them feeling understood.


Face, Head, Empathy, Meet, Sensitivity, Friendliness

No matter what shape or form empathy takes, it is and will always be regarded as an important element in therapy and counseling. Without it, therapy will be effective and successful. Therapists and counselors spent years of training in order to master this ability. And with that, they’ve proved to provide important mental health care to people all over the world.

To know more, check out these awesome articles:

Empathy by

Understanding Empathy: What is it and Why is it Important in Counseling by Joaquín Selva

What is empathy? by Gherardo Della Marta

THE VALUE OF EMPATHY IN COUNSELLING by the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors

Also, check out these video about how empathy is used in counseling:

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