Understanding the power of empathy: A qualitative study

Date of Completion

January 1995


Education, Guidance and Counseling|Education, Educational Psychology




Much of the counseling literature identifies the presence of empathy as crucial in creating therapeutic change. However, counselor education has struggled as to what aspects of empathy to develop or focus upon in training, primarily because of existing inconsistencies surrounding definition, development and measurement. An emphasis on quantitative, linear, and reductionistic research methods in counseling psychology has rendered the study of empathy incomplete. Most scales and techniques for training focus on the static, external, and observable manifestations of empathy that are then translated into communication behaviors and skills. This study explored the more internal, contextual, and multidimensional aspects of empathy through the use of qualitative methods.^ The data for this investigation were obtained through a national survey of counselor educators, focus groups and individual interviews with counselors with varying levels of experience, and researcher participant observation in two counseling relationships. Data were analyzed for salient categories and themes relating to the study's research questions that would contribute to a better understanding of the elusive concept of empathy. The results were discussed in terms of implications for training methods in counselor education.^ The results indicate that a Rogerian definition of empathy is not only a consistent way of conceptualizing empathy, but is also useful in describing and operationalizing the existential and aesthetic aspects of empathy that were identified as neglected in more traditional training programs. Also, the personal development of the trainee was consistently identified as contributing most to empathic ability. The results suggest that personal characteristics of the trainee, in conjunction with information dissemination and skills training, should have greater emphasis in counselor training programs to encourage intra-personal, inter-personal and social development. Specific exercises and ideas for counselor educators to increase trainees' empathy levels were discussed. Finally, it was determined that those responsible for training counselors to become effective change agents should consider the personal characteristics and innate abilities of those wishing to enter a counselor education program, thus creating a need for further research on effective selection procedures. ^