Harnessing the Power of Accurate Empathy

Among the many tools that effective facilitators and clinicians can use in their work is that of accurate empathy. In Motivational Interviewing, Miller and Rollnick define accurate empathy as “an active interest in, and effort to understand the other’s internal perspective, to see the world through her or his eyes.”

The word empathy could suggest having had the same or similar experience: “I’ve been there, and I understand.” Fortunately, that is not what makes a more effective facilitator. You don’t need to have had the same experiences yourself, any more than having had cancer makes an oncologist more effective.

At its core, accurate empathy is about understanding what another person means and is experiencing. This is much more than simply repeating back what a client says. It is an active effort to truly understand the other person. It is the sincere, productive desire to get to the underlying feelings and motivations behind their words.

Accurate empathy is a skill that looks easier than it is. For a variety of reasons – whether the righting reflex, past experiences, biases or otherwise – clinicians can sometimes make inaccurate assumptions about their client’s feelings, their situation or the point they are trying to make. This can happen even with the best of intentions. Using accurate empathy can help facilitators avoid making inaccurate assumptions, build trust and support positive outcomes for clients.

You might try to practice empathy by being quiet and listening carefully to what someone says. But even if you achieved a reasonably good understanding in that way, this is not what accurate empathy means. Your own internal understanding is of little use to clients. The clinical skill of accurate empathy simultaneously helps both you and the client move toward a clearer understanding of their dilemma.

What is added beyond respectful silence is the skill of reflective listening, offering gentle guesses about what the person may mean. This is done not by asking questions (“Do you mean that you...?”) but rather by offering your guess as a statement. This can feel strange at first, because you know you’re only making a guess that might be wrong, which makes you want to ask a question instead. However, questions tend to be more pressuring or threatening, even though that is not your intention. Consider the difference between these two responses:

That was really frustrating for you.

That was really frustrating for you?

The difference is an inflection of the voice upward at the end of the question, and doing that can evoke defensiveness. It’s a subtle skill, but the good news is that your participant gives you immediate feedback about whether your guess is correct (and whether you posed it in a threatening way). Just a touch of sarcasm in your voice can turn a good reflection into a confrontation.

Based on your client’s response, an effective reflection can open up more opportunities for asking questions, evoking motivation and working toward a client-centered therapeutic alliance.