Empathy is the capacity to vicariously experience and understand the thoughts and feelings of another person by imagining oneself in that person's place.
Most forms of psychotherapy require some degree of empathy on the part of the therapist. The clientcentered therapy pioneered by Carl Rogers (1902–87) places particular emphasis on this quality as the core of what helps clients in psychotherapy. Instead of looking at clients from the outside, and interpreting their dreams, thoughts, fantasies or feelings, the client-centered therapist attempts to see matters as they actually look to their clients. Throughout each therapy session, the therapist demonstrates what Rogers termed accurate empathetic understanding, showing sensitivity to the clients’ feelings through the tool of active listening. Active listening shows careful and perceptive attention to what clients are saying. The therapist employs a variety of behaviors common to attentive listeners: making frequent eye contact with their clients, nodding to indicate agreement or understanding, and generally showing that the therapist is listening attentively. This technique is designed to support rather than challenge clients.
Reflection is another technique specifically used by client-centered therapists to reveal their attunement to their clients. Reflection consists of paraphrasing and/or summarizing what clients have just said. This technique lets therapists check the accuracy of their perceptions while showing clients that they are paying careful attention and are interested in what is being said. Hearing their own thoughts and feelings repeated by another person can also help clients achieve new levels of insight and self-awareness. Clients generally respond to reflection by elaborating further on the thoughts they have just expressed. Empathy constitutes a major portion of the therapeutic work in client-centered therapy. Helping clients feel better about themselves gives clients the self-confidence and energy to deal actively with their issues. Empathy is not exclusive to a Rogerian approach. Feminist and interpersonal psychotherapy also focus on the singular importance of this trait. Empathy is a defining characteristic for many areas of personality. Asperger's syndrome has been defined as a type of social autism in which persons are unable to feel empathy. Psychologists question whether a narcissist can feel empathy. Parents and teachers of school age children often use a chart of facial expressions similar to emoticons to help children develop a range of words for feelings and to engender empathy for other people's feelings.
See also Client-centered therapy ; Emotion ; Rogers, Carl; Social perception .
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