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… empathy can be expressed in many ways. I believe that if we didn't empathize with each other to a sufficient degree in ordinary conversation, no meaningful communication could take place, we would be talking past each other.
But according to Rogers, at least, empathic understanding responses are, first and foremost, checking responses: Am I with you?
In the short 1986 paper about empathic reflection, Rogers wrote in response to John Shlien's regretting the abandonment of the term "reflection":
From my point of view as therapist, I am not trying to "reflect feelings". I am trying to determine whether my understanding of the client's inner world is correct - whether I am seeing it as s/he is experiencing it at this moment. Each response of mine contains the unspoken question, ‘Is this the way it is in you? Am I catching just the colour and texture and flavour of the personal meaning you are experiencing right now? If not, I wish to bring my perception in line with yours’.
On the other hand, I know that from the client's point of view we are holding up a mirror of his/her current experiencing. The feelings and personal meanings seem sharper when seen through the eyes of another, when they are reflected.
So I suggest that these therapist responses be labelled not ‘Reflections of Feeling’, but ‘Testing Understandings’, or ‘Checking Perceptions’. Such terms would, I believe, be more accurate and would be helpful in the training of therapists, by supplying a sound motivation in responding, a questioning, rather than a desire to ‘reflect’.
This was picked up on by Dottie Morgan, who commented:
I appreciate this idea of "checking understanding" rather than reflection. I suspect that would have prevented stiff parroting, which I perceive as non-empathic.
Rogers writes beautifully on this in "Client-centered therapy" (1951) p. 28. The quote is a bit lengthy, but I think it is worth it:
Perhaps the subtle difference between a declarative and an empathic attitude on the part of the counslor may be conveyed by an example. Here is a client statement: "I feel as though my mother is always watching me and criticizing what I do. It gets me all stirred up inside. I try not to let that happen, but you now, there are times when I feel her eagle eye on me that I just boil inwardly."
A response on the counselor's part might be: "You resent her criticism." This response may be given empathically, with the tone of voice such as would be used if it were worded, "If I understand you correctly, you feel pretty resentful toward her criticism. Is that right?" If this is the attitude and tone which is used, it would probably be experienced by the client as aiding him in further expression. Yet we have learned, from the fumblings of counselors-in-training, that "You resent her criticism" may be given with the same attitude and tone with which one might announce "You have the measles," or even with the attitude and tone which would accompany the words "You are sitting on my hat." If the reader will repeat the counselor response in some of these varying inflections, he may realize that when stated empathically and understandingly, the likely attitudinal response on the part of the client is, "Yes, that is the way I feel, and I perceive that a little more clearly now that you have put it in somewhat different terms." But when the counselor statement is declarative, it becomes an evaluation, a judgment made by the counselor, who is now telling the client what his feelings are. The process is centered in the counselor, and the feeling of the client would tend to be, " I am being diagnosed.
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