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Jun 6, 2017

3 Reasons to Intentionally Cultivate Empathy

In counseling skills training students are often taught the basic listening skill sequence.

The importance of seeking to understand clients cannot be overemphasized, and it is often painful for beginning counseling students to slow down and seek to be present with clients and hear their stories without rushing in to first problem solve, fix, or give advice. One of my clinical supervisors, Dr. George Jefferson, used to say to his students and supervisees, “you have to give up your right to be understood, and seek first to understand.” This, I believe, is the beginning of an umbrella skill, empathy.

I saw a nice demonstration of the power of empathy recently. In a remake of the classic film, “Beauty and the Beast” there comes a moment after an evening of dancing when Belle, who was taken captive by the “beast,” shares that her father taught her to dance and she often stepped on his feet. The “beast’s” face softens and he reflects, “you must miss him” and Belle shares that she does indeed and he is moved to action and asks if she would like to visit… this discussion represents what some would call an empathic shift. The “beast,” who initially appears to be very angry and have struggles with emotion regulation, turns out to be anything but a beast, after all. Not only does the “beast” begin to think of what it would be like to be Belle, but seemingly begins to feel with her. At this moment, he then is moved to put her needs above his own, and thus love is born. I do not want to spoil the rest of the story, I recommend watching the film and looking out for the aforementioned moment. Just one caveat, it is a bit of a tear jerker, and here we see the power of empathy in relationships.

One reason to enhance empathy, involves cooperation. The clinical relationship is one that requires cooperation. There is cooperation in setting ground rules, scheduling appointments, agenda setting and more. As we learning more about empathy, current research is also demonstrating which mechanisms of the brain are responsible for empathic responses, including the left and right pre-frontal cortex (PFC) (Balconi & Vanutelli, 2017). Empathy has been found to serve a function in maintaining and enhancing social cooperation (Rumble, van Lang, and Parks, 2010). In the journal, “Electronic Physician” an article was published on empathy in Iranian student residents in 2016, and authors concluded that there were differences in empathy sub-scores among those in different specialty areas and concluded that Iranian physicians should have more empathy training in medical school. It is thought that empathy improves the patient and client relationship.

A second reason to work on enhancing empathy is that empathy helps strengthen relationships, and the therapeutic relationship is a powerful healing mechanism. Also, in some approaches to treating depression such as Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy (CBASP), the therapist practices disciplined interpersonal responses that model new ways of interacting that help the client shift their responses. In addition, empathy experientially learned in session in these types of interactions may be taken out of session and applied to enhance other relations. Empathy has been implicated as playing an important positive role in interpersonal relationships. For example, Gottman and his colleagues used a coding system to study how couples tried to recover from episodes of negativity during conflict. Gottman and his colleagues have found in spousal relationships that a husband’s empathy significantly reduced his negativity and increased his positivity (Gottman et al., 2015).They also found that empathy played a role, and a very effective one at that, they found, “repair attempts that are based on increasing emotional closeness (agreement, affection, humor, self-disclosure, understanding and empathy, and we’re okay), or insuring that the starting affective climate is positive were highly effective repairs (Gottman et al., p. 103).”

A third reason to keep developing empathy, is that it is implicated in many counseling skills. For example, on the Skilled Counseling Scale (SCS; Schaefle, Smaby, Maddux, and Cates, 2005) at least six of the 18 key counseling skills or 1/3 of the skills are associated with empathy, so it may be considered an umbrella skill or a skill that is associated with several other key counseling skills. In future work, I along with my colleague Dr. Steve Warren, will be focusing more on empathy and empathy development in counselors in training.


Balconi & Vanutelli, (2017). Empathy in Negative and Positive Interpersonal Interactions. What is the relationship between central (EEG, fNRIS) and Peripheral (Autonomic) Neurophysiological Responses? Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 13 (1), 105-120.

Gottman, J. M., Driver, J., & Tabares, A. (2015). Repair During Marital Conflict in Newlyweds: How Couples Move from Attack–Defend to Collaboration. Journal Of Family Psychotherapy, 26(2), 85-108. doi:10.1080/08975353.2015.1038962

Rumble, A. C., Van Lange, P. M., & Parks, C. D. (2010). The benefits of empathy: When empathy may sustain cooperation in social dilemmas. European Journal Of Social Psychology, 40(5), 856-866.

Shahini, N., Rezayat, K. A., Behdani, F., Habibzadeh Shojaei, S. R., Rezayat, A. A., & Dadgarmoghaddam, M. (2016). Empathy Score among Student Residence Assistants in Iran. Electronic Physician, 8(12), 3357-3362. doi: 10.19082/3357
Anita Knight is a counselor, counselor educator, and author.  See for more information.

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