Empathy has been described and defined in many ways. In the last few years, I have been collecting my thoughts about empathy as it applies to psychotherapy and would like to share them here. My bias is to see the concept as a therapists’ main instrument for understanding and interpreting the client’s subjective experience. Social work’s nonjudgmental stance and being where the client is, together form a good start for capturing the nuance of empathy in the therapeutic context. Developmental psychology with its focus on elucidating the dynamics of collaborative relationships and facilitating healthy attachments further expand social work’s ideas. Empathy is a deep and broad topic reaching far beyond the therapy context and into human history and civilization. For this article, I simply address empathy within the matrix of psychotherapy. Empathy is:
Close listening unimpeded by judgment.
Willingness to imagine into the depths and textures of the others’ thoughts and affects.
A mode of connection that enables and facilitates increasing levels of understanding and explanation.
An attitude of openness toward the other that engenders the possibility of mutual recognition.
The interpersonal skill responsible for focusing on and discerning the subjective experience of the other.
In the choreography of interpersonal communication, a generous extension of acceptance toward the other, intended to expand and enhance sharing from the narrow business of small-talk to the more meaningful experience of deep dialogue.
Responsively tuning in to the explicit and implicit affective transactions between self and other.
An intentional use of sensitivity toward the other for the purpose of establishing increased intimacy and emotional and intellectual depth.
The capacity to take into account the inner life of the other as it is gradually revealed through self-disclosure.
The foundational principle and practice of helping behavior.
The primary tool for disambiguating and understanding the terrain of the other’s mind.
David Fireman, LCSW