Empathic Listening

Considering our increased exposure to traumatic events, uncertainty, and challenges people face, empathy must become a foundational skill in our dealings with people.

Both empathic listening and empathic responding are essential concepts and skills.

However, there is so much confusion in the psychological literature as to what empathy means. Empathy can be seen as an intellectual process that involves understanding another person’s emotional state and point of view correctly.

Empathy can also refer to empathic emotions experienced by the counsellor. The intellectual process is stressed. Counsellors must understand the feelings and emotions of their clients and their meaning for the clients, even though they might not “feel along with” the clients. Furthermore, this intellectual process is presented as a communication skill.

Listening with empathy involves attending, observing and observing, and being with the client and their world. Although it might be physically impossible to get “inside” the world of another person and experience the world as he or she does, it is possible to approximate this. Even an approximation is very useful in helping. Indeed, if people are to care for one another, some form of empathy is essential. Caring for clients and their concerns is part of respect.

Carl Rogers talked passionately about essential empathic listening, being with and understanding the other, even calling it “an unappreciated way of being”.

He used the word unappreciated, because in his view, few people in the general population developed this “deep listening” ability, and even so-called expert counsellors did not give it the attention it deserved.

Essential empathic listening means entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it. It involves being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings that flow in this other person, to the fear, or rage, or tenderness, or confusion, or whatever that he or she is experiencing. It means temporarily living in the other’s life, moving about in it delicately, without making judgements.

Such empathic listening is selfless because counsellors must put aside their concerns to be complete with their clients. Of course, Rogers pointed out that this more profound understanding of clients remains sterile unless somehow communicated to them. Although clients can appreciate how intensely they are attended to and listened to, their concerns still need to be understood.

Empathic listening begets empathic understanding, which begets empathic responding.

The following verse in Hebrews comes to mind immediately when I think of Jesus as our great high priest who empathises with us in all our troubles.

Hebrews 4:14-16. Since then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.)

Empathic participation in the world of another person admits degrees. As a counsellor, you must be able to enter clients’ worlds deeply enough, to understand their struggles with problem situations or their search for opportunities, with enough depth, to make your participation in problem management and opportunity development valid and substantial. If your help is based on an incorrect or invalid understanding of the client, your helping may lead him/her astray. If your understanding is valid but superficial, you might miss the central issues of the client’s life.

Taken from the following material.


Empathy, Compassion and Understanding


Digital Booklet

When clients present themselves to counsellors, there is no way of reading what is in their hearts. This unfolds throughout counselling sessions, but it is not visible in the beginning. There is no single mould of storytelling. There are several varieties involved.


The above-mentioned information can also be acquired through completing the online short course below.


Introduction to Pastoral Counselling


Access to the course: 3 months. Outcome: Service SETA certificate of completion.

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