Empathy is increasingly viewed as more that an essential aspect of effective person-centered counseling. It is arguably the key humanizing aspect of the effective type of relationship through which a true and honest exchange of understanding can take place to facilitate healing or psychological improvement (Hakansson, 2003).
Carl Rogers, one of the recognized founders of this conceptualization, attached an increasing significance to this reality as he reconsidered the issue of the role of empathy over the course of his professional life. Initially, in his earlier writings (1959), he focused on the "state" of meaning wherein a therapist could "perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy" as if he or she were in alignment with what it was that the client experienced. Not losing this "as if" condition would allow the therapist to stay honest and genuine while still being objective and nonjudgmental about the conditions that the client perceived as his or her reality (Hakansson, 2003).
In his later years (post 1975), he would reconnect with his original conceptualization and try to clarify what experience has taught him. It would be at this point where he would seek to change his original definition of the "state" of empathy more toward an awareness of the process of engagement with the client. Being able to dig deeper would enable the empathetic counselor to truly understand where the client was and thus do justice to his or her perceived realities. In making this change, Rogers replaced his previous definition with this somewhat lengthy description that he believed most accurately expressed the process (Hakansson, 2003:5). Today, it is this definition that in many ways remains the basic understanding of the empathic process:
The way of being with another person which is termed empathic has several facets. It means entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it. It involves being sensitive, moment to moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person, to the fear or rage or tenderness or confusion or whatever, that he/she is experiencing. It means temporarily living in his/her life, moving about in it delicately without making judgments, sensing meanings of which he/she is scarcely aware, but not trying to uncover feelings of which the person is totally unaware, since this would be too threatening. It includes communicating your sensings of his/her world as you look with fresh and unfrightened eyes at elements of which the individual is fearful. It means frequently checking with him/her as to the accuracy of your sensings, and being guided by the responses you receive. You are a confident companion to the person in his/her inner world. By pointing to the possible meanings in the flow of his/her experiencing you help the person to focus on this useful type of referent, to experience the meanings more fully, and to move forward in the experiencing (Rogers, 1975:3).
This understanding has been operationalized to some degree on a number of fronts. For one thing, it is often used to distinguish between primary and more advanced empathic engagement. Primary empathy is the initial introduction between the client and the counselor of this important perspective. Evidence seems to indicate that from just the first few sessions objective measurements can be made of the level of empathy that may ultimately develop between the client and the counselor, even if the first demonstrations of this characteristic are founded on rather straightforward indicators (Rogers, 1975:4). Only later does the counselor begin to position him/herself to be attuned to the clues and perceptions that enable them to deduce where a client might be heading when confronted with various life challenges. At this point "advanced empathy responses go beyond surface client expressions by identifying less conscious client feelings, thoughts and perceptions" (McCarthy Veach et al., 2003).
Rogers' earliest understandings led to the development of what he referred to as client-centered counseling. That concept has itself grown across the years to become what is often thought of a person-centered counseling (Mulhouser, 2011). Empathy is but one of three core elements of this relationship. The other two are unconditional positive regard and congruence. Unconditional positive regard is a demonstration of how the counselor accepts the client unconditionally and without judgment. Congruence is a reflection of the genuineness of the relationship, such that the client does not perceive the counselor as being aloof or otherwise hiding behind a professional facade. When presented together, these elements allow for the building of a functional partnership of trust that facilitates the growth of a true empathic condition wherein the counselor can then be fully engaged without losing the "as if" condition. "The person-centered therapist makes every attempt to foster an environment in which clients can encounter themselves and become more intimate with their own thoughts, feelings and meanings" (Mulhouser, 2011).
Unfortunately, recognizing such an ideal does not always mean that it happens. There can be a number of obstacles to developing a healthy therapeutic relationship. One of the primary challenges that counselors and clients have centers on keeping clear meanings between the various levels of interactivity that occur as emotional and even traumatic experiences are shared. Empathy, for example, is not the same thing as sympathy or perhaps what has even been referred to as "emotional contagion," or the tendency of people to align themselves with the feelings and experiences of another person just because of their proximity to the situation (Stueber, 2008). Maintaining this type of clarity comes about as a result of the counselor being well grounded in his or her own self-awareness and their constant check and balance of their comprehension of the empathic process. The case has even been made that it is this constant need for checking and rechecking on one's objectivity that underlies the a growing concern about "empathy fatigue" where the best of counselors find it difficult to keep themselves properly connected to their clients' realities and perceptions.
On another level, perhaps a more common barrier has to do with the reality that counselors of all types are being asked to work with highly diverse clients. As one commentator put it, "Differences between counselors and clients are barriers to empathy. Differences in sex, age, religion, socioeconomic status, education, and culture impede the development of empathic understanding" (Patterson, 1985). Counselors cannot be all things to all people, and they clearly cannot be fully attuned to all the sensitivities that come from being aware of the many distinctions that different groups of people are claiming for themselves. As a result, it is possible that many clients and therapists will have to struggle significantly to overcome these barriers so that they can properly relate to each other (Counseling Psychology Model, 2009).
Though these two types of barriers are distinct, there is a growing professional effort to integrate training and preparation efforts to help overcome these barriers. Increasingly, more educational and support programs for counselors are focusing on linking their self-awareness elements to the issues of the values of diversity. Multicultural awareness and advocacy are being seen as companion self-reflective focuses that can enable therapists to be stronger advocates for the true depth of perceptions that their clients face. Rogers recognized early on that therapists who are effective are not value free; instead, they respect the values of those they work with. Not surprisingly, then, multicultural initiatives in the profession are beginning to see the importance of linking awareness and social justice to what professionals must be cognizant of if they are going to be honest and genuine in developing their empathic connections. "Counseling psychology training programs believe providing experiences that call for trainees to self-disclose and personally introspect about personal life experiences is an essential component of the training program" (Counseling Psychology Model, 2009). This includes openly learning about and engaging…