There’s a standard joke about Carl Rogers’ practice of empathic reflection that goes something like this:
A client speaking to his Rogerian therapist says: “I’m so depressed, I just don’t feel like is worth living.” The therapist replies: “I hear you saying that you’re in pain and that you’re not sure how you will ever feel better.” The client replies by saying: “I really feel I would be better off dead.” To which the therapist comments: “You really are at your wits ends about what to do.” The client stands and moves to the window of the office and opening it up, the therapist says observes, “You’re showing me how much pain you are in, how desperate you are.” The client then jumps out the window – the therapist says, “Splat” (Rosenbaum, 2009).
The idea behind the joke, and hundreds more like it, is that reflective listening is ineffectual; it’s a form of parroting rather than doing actual therapy.
Reflective listening is ineffectual when done poorly, and unfortunately this is often the case when practioners learn the technique without learning how to take it to the next level. But this simplistic application is certainly not what Rogers intended.
Rogers defined empathy as:
[the perception of] the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the "as if" condition (Rogers, 1959, p. 210-211).
It’s going beyond recognizing another’s situation; it’s being able to imagine oneself inhabiting it.
Rogers demonstrated the concept in the form of the first-ever-published therapy transripts. It was a risk. By willfully exposing the clunkiness of therapeutic dialogue, full of “ums” and “uhhuhs” and “yeahs,” he made himself (and other therapists) vulnerable. He had to admit that, just anyone else, his intuitive empathic understanding was imperfect, and that he often had to fumble to accurately comprehend his clients, sometimes getting them entirely wrong and requiring correction.
But he also revealed something important about empathic communication. It does require the therapist to reflect the client’s statements, but this should not be done through literal repetition. Rather the therapist should affirm the content of what's expressed with imagination, acceptance, and genuine understanding. This can’t be faked.
When Herbert Bryan, the patient whose transcripts Rogers published, described the physical experience of his anxiety, for example, Rogers linked it to a deeper feeling of emasculation:
Bryan: “When I walk, that is, when I’m feeling badly, I walk hunched over and sort of like I had a bellyache, which I actually do have, psychologically.
Herbert agreed to this interpretation, as he did to many of Rogers’s encapsulations. And, when he didn’t agree, Rogers pulled back, fine-tuning his understanding and reframing his statements to make them more accurate.
This is good empathy. It’s the difference between sounding like a therapst and being a therapist. It’s also the difference between being an attuned husband/ wife/ mother/ father/ friend and a superficial one.
Anyone who’s ever engaged in effective empathetic communication knows that it’s damn tiring. It requires your full attention and emotional presence. If you’re a therapist who does this for 8 hours straight, you collapse at the end of your day. If you’re a partner who’s expected to do it on top of working, caring for children, and cleaning the house, you know that it’s usually easiest mid-morning, after your coffee’s taken effect, and hardest just before bed.
But if you’ve read any research at all on empathy, you know that it's hugely important. We're just beginning to grasp the value of this kind of attunement. Not only does it make for better, more supportive, warmer relationships, and better therapy, it seems to help us heal.
Rosenbaum, P. (2009). Going beyond unconditional acceptance: Carl Rogers and individual subjectivity. http://www.mutuallyoccluded.com/2009/10/going-beyond-unconditional-acceptance-carl-rogers-and-individual-subjectivity/
Rogers, C. R. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In S. Koch, (Ed.) Psychology: A study of a science, (Vol. 3, Formulations of the person and the social context). New York: McGraw Hill.
Rogers, C. R. (1942). Counseling and psychotherapy: Newer concepts in practice (Boston: Houghton Mifflin). p. 273.