Tag Archives: empathy

Unspoken Empathy

Posted by: Sherry Law on April 20, 2016 10:46 am

In my counselling program, we were always taught that the therapeutic alliance was the most important part of any successful therapy. Trust was fundamental to the construction of the therapeutic alliance, and it was through empathy that trust was forged. In my few years of practice, it seemed to hold true that relating to my clients through the use of empathy helped them to trust and confide in me the details of their struggles. As I would listen, my mind would focus on what it may have been like to be in my client’s shoes. I believed every word they would say, and considered their positions as though they were my own. I would ask questions when I was not clear to help define my clients position on their experience of an event or a reality, and I would adjust my views accordingly to better empathize. This worked well enough as time after time, the clients thanked me and seemed appreciative of my time spent with them. I always thought that the more empathy you could harness, the better the outcome. But what did I think empathy was? One session made me reconsider what empathy meant to me in my practice.

This client had seen me multiple times before. For confidentiality, let us call him “Toby”. Toby had originally come to me to help him with raising a problematic teenage child. I would see them regularly and helped them with communication exercises, and untangling their emotions and intentions from their words and reactions. My empathy worked well for a number of sessions as Toby continued to come back with son in tow, claiming successes in the home that had never been witnessed before. After a few months of sessions, Toby disclosed to me that he wanted sessions for himself, rather than with the child. I was open to the idea and happy that the successes helped Toby believe that if I can help him and his son, that maybe I can help him as well.

In our first session, Toby explained that he had been victim of multiple forms of domestic and family abuse, spanning years. He described vivid memories that I watched through my mind’s eye. The abuse was horrible. I sat silently as Toby recounted the tales, and feelings of helplessness in moving past these experiences. At the end of the session, all I could feel was gratefulness of this person reaching out to help themselves move on. I utilized the same tools of empathy that had worked so well before, and looked forward to seeing Toby again. Unfortunately, after that session, neither Toby, nor his son, ever came back to see me.

People are resilient and we all use different tools and mechanisms to adapt and survive. Toby’s pain was something he was surviving, and it is possible that he distanced himself from his own experience in order to survive the pain. The logic and flat tone he used when narrating his experience was not lost on me. How does empathy build trust when the very thing that kept a person alive was to block the feelings that hurt so much? I do not have an answer, but that moment helped me to temper my views on empathy, and therefore my practice. Empathy was not solely isolating the feelings and views stated by the client and taking them as your own. Empathy was also reading between the lines and understanding the quiet hesitancy, fears, anxieties, and resistance within the session as well. Maybe I was moving too fast for Toby, but I believe I struck a nerve. Perhaps it is also what Toby needed to create a chink in the armor to truly begin healing from past wounds.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

Empathy Through Virtual Reality

Posted by: Sherry Law on September 22, 2015 12:51 pm


As a virtual reality (VR) enthusiast, I have seen first hand demonstrations which encourage empathy. Computer graphics is sophisticated enough where facial expressions of avatars are believable, and if you pay attention to video games which focus on story/narrative, then you can see that context of avatars can be deep, meaningful, and nuanced, reflecting real people and real situations. These characters and their stories can be powerful enough to elicit deep emotions, not unlike how poetry or song can. However, because VR includes visual, audio, and contextual stimulus, the emotions rely less on interpretation, and instead are directly administered through the story telling and the expressiveness of the characters and environment which surround the observer.

Empathy, the ability to understand or share the feelings of others, is a powerful tool that all therapists employ. As a skill, it serves to help therapists navigate through the challenges that a client may be facing. Empathy is critical in client care for its ability to create a therapeutic alliance bound by understanding. Not only can empathy directly impact the therapeutic relationship, it can impact a therapist’s practice by reducing bias, prejudice, and conflict within the therapist from which they can develop and improve their practice. Due to the importance of this skill, developing empathy is a significant focus for many health professionals. Traditional ways of developing therapeutic skills include workshops, conferences, lectures, reading, and field experience. Although these methods have been invaluable and cannot be replaced, what VR could offer in the future is a streamlined, safe, and efficient way to learn and practice therapeutic skills, but also to tinker with our social interactions in a digital vacuum.

Once computer graphics, story-telling, and VR merge, you can have in the palm of your hands a powerful experience that is convincing on a human level. Imagine the avatars reacting to your movements, and paying attention to your actions and reactions to them. Imagine the avatars being able to express without even speaking, simply by using their facial expressions. Imagine having text boxes popping up to explain the reaction of the avatar and why they may have occurred, and more importantly, what you have done to contribute to such a response. What VR can provide is the isolation of these human expressions and an interactive environment from which to build empathy and tinker with social behaviour in a safe and insulated way.

As a practicing counsellor, I can see immense benefits in being able to interact with an avatar to test therapeutic methods. Given some context, how will the avatar react if I did this, said that, or looked away? Of course, the reactions of the avatar rely solely on the ability of the programmer to predict how a human would respond. Once health professionals become part of the development for these programs and experiences, much more can be expected of them.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

You Are Not One Of Us

Posted by: Priya Senroy on May 6, 2011 8:54 am

A few years ago, I was trying to set up a focus group of lesbians for a counselling project and yes I did face many challenges in getting this project going. Working in a Scarborough community, after months of doing outreach, we finally got a group of four women interested. That number does not accurately reflect an estimated 450,000  gay or lesbian residents of the GTA. When trying to find out from this core group of women as to what was stopping the lesbians in Scarborough to take part in a focus group-my preconceived answer was met with the statement- “You are not one of us.”

Here I was thinking about society stigma, taboo being the reason but I had never thought my personal gender orientation would become a barrier in delivering a much needed service in the area.

Trained as a Creative Arts Therapist, we were taught about cultural diversity from a counselling perspective, but no one told me that I had to be of a specific group in order to work with them. And I know that at this point in time, I do not have the option to change my gender orientation or have a specific disability or have suffered a specific medical condition just to work as counsellor with any group.

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*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

Essentials of The Therapeutic Relationship

Posted by: Maritza Rodriguez on April 1, 2011 9:23 am

The therapeutic relationship is unique in that for many clients, it is the first intimate connection they have had with another person where profound feelings, beliefs and thoughts are exposed. Counselling should provide the client with an open and safe setting that emphasizes self-exploration and change without the client feeling the need to censor or conform.

There are three important qualities a client should look for when seeking a therapist that Carl Rogers emphasized: empathy, genuineness and respect. Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand the client’s situation, feelings and motives. It provides the foundation for a therapeutic relationship because it establishes the personal connection. Traits of genuineness include being open, honest, and sincere and an absence of defensiveness and phoniness. This allows the client to be at ease and increases the opportunity for valuable inquiry and awareness. Respect establishes the safety that is essential in a counseling relationship.  By accepting the client as a whole, including strengths and weaknesses, an environment has been established where profound issues can be brought to the surface for examination and transformation.

The client-therapist relationship is essential to establishing a successful outcome by promoting willingness for the client to share and engage with the counsellor. This promotes increased propensity toward self awareness and change in behavior, thoughts and beliefs. It is also important that counseling remain client focused by discussing and defining the goals of the client, rather than the counsellor imposing their own mandates and judgments. This further reinforces the vital characteristics of a positive helping alliance: empathy, genuineness and respect.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA