WellBeing

Harnessing empathy

You might consider yourself a compassionate person who exercises your empathic skills all the time. When your friend shares a problem, you tell them you understand, and nod in reassurance. I mean how hard can it be? A lot harder than you think.

I can think of at least two good personal friends who are caring, kind, compassionate people. Yet on rare occasions they have shown no understanding of an issue I’m sharing or my feelings surrounding it. In therapy this is called an “empathic failure”. Genuine empathy requires effective active listening, and this can be hard work. It really is an “active” not a passive process; you are not just hearing someone, you are deeply listening to their pain or the underlying feelings when they are sharing, and you are able to reflect those feelings accurately back to them even when they may not have directly stated them. When two people can share at this level, almost any conflict can be resolved.

Just as empathic listening is the cornerstone of any personal relationship, it also the cornerstone of any a good therapy relationship. Research suggests that the relationship with the therapist, regardless of the type of therapy used, is what accounts for much and maybe most of the change from therapy. So, if

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