In episode 72 of the Counselling Tutor Podcast, Ken Kelly and Rory Lees-Oakes discuss empathy in counselling. Continuing to ‘Practice Matters’, Rory explains the main stages of counselling. Last, the presenters discuss immediacy.
Empathy in Counselling (starts at 1.58 mins)
Empathy and sympathy are two very different things: sympathy involves feeling sorry for someone, and comes from your own frame of reference, while empathy involves trying to understand the other person’s situation and experience, putting yourself into their frame of reference as far as possible.
Empathy is like walking in the other person’s shoes – but it’s really important to keep your socks on! In other words, the counsellor must be able to separate themselves from the client again at the end of the session. Another useful image here is that empathy is like entering the client’s room, but without forgetting where the door is so that you can return to your own world later. While in the client’s room, it’s important to go gently and tread lightly.
Carl Rogers proposed that therapist empathy is one of the six necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic personality change. Empathy must be circular – in other words, for it to be real and effective, it must be fully perceived by the client. Being truly heard is often a huge relief for clients.
To show empathy, it is important to use a number of counselling skills – in particular, attending, reflecting, paraphrasing and silence. When we talk about ‘idiosyncratic’ empathy, we mean that empathy is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ quality: it is unique and different for every client, just as they and their experiences are too.
You can read more about empathy on the Counselling Tutor website, where we have published a special article on this topic. There, you can see a video featuring Carl Rogers talking about empathy, and also download a free handout on how to measure empathy in counselling.
Stages of Counselling (starts at 13.41 mins)
Rory describes and explains the key stages in counselling. These comprise the following:
- Contracting stage – the initial stage in counselling, when the counsellor explains to the client what is on offer and how they work; this stage is important to encourage a power balance between the two parties and to foster client autonomy. That is, the client can decide whether to go ahead with counselling based on what is discussed.
- Middle stage – it is in this stage of counselling that the therapeutic work takes place; this is likely to be the longest stage in counselling, as the therapeutic relationship gradually develops and deepens, and the client feels able to explore more and more of what has brought them to counselling.
- Preparation for ending – because it is important not to spring the ending onto a client, but instead to work together towards this, counsellors will regularly review how the process is going, and prepare the client for ending. This is especially important when there are a fixed number of sessions (e.g. in a charitable agency) – the counsellor may remind the client of how many are left to go.
- Ending – at the final stage of counselling, there will often be a last review of progress made and work done, as the counsellor ensures that the client is safe and ready to end therapy, at least for now.
Immediacy (starts at 20.51 mins)
Immediacy is an interesting advanced skill in counselling. It can be used in various ways, but tends to involve the therapist investigating what is going on in the therapeutic relationship.
Immediacy involves an element of risk-taking, and is therefore most useful both when the counsellor has a reasonable level of experience and when the therapeutic relationship has been established and is therefore fairly stable. It involves voicing a feeling that you have become aware of in yourself; this may often relate to boundary issues. It is based on curiosity rather than judgement, and must be couched as such.
Another use of immediacy can be to point out apparent contradictions in the client – perhaps between different things they have said, or between their body language and words.