Empathy is NOT Feeling bad for someone.

Empathy with your client’s situation predicts your results

Written by Dr Gary Mendoza

Empathy is the single best predictor of a high success rate in counselling. By developing good empathic skills your clients will value and appreciate the working relationship you have with them. This type of relationship, where the client’s autonomy is respected, will ultimately get better results for the client.

Empathy is sometimes mistaken for identifying with the client with phrases like “walk a mile in my shoes” often used to demonstrate the point. This could not be further from the truth. It is also not living the client’s problems. It is not necessary to have lost a lot of weight and been on that journey to have empathy for the client. You don’t need to have lived with the same problem or had the same experiences to show accurate empathy with your client.

On the otherside of this, empathy is an ability to accurately understand your clients meaning. In turn it is also the ability to reflect that accurate understanding back to the client. In order to be able to do this consistently you have to be able to park your own value judgements. For some trainers/coaches this can be quite difficult. If you struggle to understand why someone wouldn’t like going to the gym or exercising, then this is your value judgement getting in the way. You must be able to respect the fact that people are free to choose, and we have to respect those choices, whether we agree with them or not.

After all you would think that having had a heart attack would be enough to persuade people to quit smoking, change their diet, exercise more, and take their medication. I mean why wouldn’t you make those changes. Surely someone diagnosed with diabetes mellitus with the very real threats of kidney failure, blindness, amputations and other complications associated with diabetes would be enough to motivate them to lose weight and ensure they have good glycaemic control. Despite these very real complications and risks some people fail to change. Part of this is their personal beliefs and values playing into the decisions they are making.

You may look at these scenarios and think why on earth would you not change given the associated risks. This is a reflection of your education, values and beliefs. It is difficult when you are working with a client and they are perhaps not applying themselves as much as you think they should. At this point it’s tempting to think I can get them to change by telling them what they need to do. The truth of the matter is the only person that can make the change is the client and they will do that when they are good and ready. You telling them what they should do will not help the situation; in fact it may lead to greater resistance.

In these types of scenarios, you have to respect the client’s autonomy, their right to choose. By coming alongside and demonstrating accurate empathy the situation will be a lot better managed and is more likely to have a positive outcome for the client. Autonomy is at the centre of motivational interviewing and this coupled to accurate reflections and empathy is a key skill that needs to be mastered by coaches and trainers.

When counsellors have been studied in a working scenario it has been found that those that have high levels of empathic skill tend to have clients who demonstrate the following traits:

  1. They are less resistant to change, and ideas associated with these changes.
  2. They are more likely to stay in the programme
  3. They are more likely to successfully make a change
  4. They are less likely to relapse having made a change.

Empathy is the single best predictor of a high success rate in addiction counselling. This was found despite all other factors. Things such as the counsellors’ knowledge, experience, age, patience etc. were nowhere near as good a predictor of success as empathy is. If you are looking to develop one skill to improve the results you achieve with clients, then learning good empathic skills would be a good place to start.

One simple thing you can do straight away is video record some of your training sessions. Play back the video and go through the following checklist:

  • How much do you talk and how much do you listen? The ratio should be 80:20 – listening to talking.
  • What is your body language like? Is it open and inviting or closed off (arms folded, poor eye contact)?
  • Do you reflect client statements and check understanding to ensure the communication loop is completed?
  • Are you working as an equal with the client and thus respecting their autonomy or do you have an expert/client relationship where the client sees you as the font of all knowledge and expects you to have all the answers (by the way you don’t)? If this is the case, then you need to make some adjustments to how you work.

Reviewing sessions and learning from our mistakes is always a great way to learn. It is something that is easy to do and yet few trainers do this. Having an experienced mentor can also achieve similar outcomes. Don’t be afraid of critical appraisal it is one of the best ways to hone your skills.