Empathy and Experience


The article which had the greatest influence on my understanding of the role of empathy and shared experience in therapy was not academic or peer reviewed. It was a review in the Times newspaper of a biography of Lee Strasbourg, the creator of Method Acting. The famous anecdote of Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man suddenly clarified my unease with many therapists’ statements on their empathy for people whose experience they share little of.

Hoffman spent three nights awake in order to play a character who was tortured by having his dental nerves drilled. When he arrived on set his co-star, Lawrence Olivier said, “Why not try acting? It’s much easier.” Hoffman was acting. By spending three days without sleep he was not experiencing torture, he had chosen to go without sleep in order to improve his performance.

There is something about choice – and the power to be able to change that choice – that seems missing in the literature of empathy. An able-bodied person can choose to spend a week in a wheelchair, but if he’s in a fire he can get out and run. A person with a reasonable income can choose to live on the equivalent of benefits for a week or a month but they will not know the anxiety of being under neighbourly and state surveillance, always robbing Peter to pay Paul or the banal, recurring evil of an ATOS exam.

Thoughts from a single parent, benefit-dependant friend:

All I would say is that it doesn’t matter what profession a person is in, if they haven’t got any first hand experience of what it is like to be on a low income, especially over a long period of time (images of Portillo living the life of a single parent for a week spring to mind here), then they do struggle to appreciate the various ways in which it can impact on ones life and that of your family. Those that say they do – lip service. The majority of people who need help are from the poorer sector and either can’t afford it, aren’t offered it, may not even be fully aware or have sufficient understanding of how it works or how it could help them AND if they do, often it will be a trainee so they might not receive a decent standard of counselling.

Don’t her statements demonstrate some of her ‘issues’? Won’t the therapeutic relationship work these issues through? Does it matter if she’s right or wrong? Maybe, maybe not.

The pat answer to the question of empathy is that we all share similar experiences and can use them to empathise with the experience of the client. The existence of specialist support groups speaks to the importance of the truly shared experience. There, people can communicate in intimate shorthand without having to explain or pull their punches for the sake of the listener, experiencing a shared journey with close companions who don’t need to be orientated within the experience or told everything for there to be a sense of kinship. And in these niche groups the importance of individual experience is also valued.


The basis, the foundation, of PCA is that each person is a unique individual, that we encounter the individual and are encountered by the individual. We cannot ‘know’ the other person, the client, we just aim to meet with them. So empathy becomes problematic from the start.


Connection has been categorised and simplified, codified and reduced to a technique. We simply enter into another person’s thoughts, experiences and feelings “as if they were our own”, right? Most of us know this isn’t possible and we strive to learn more about the experience of the client, but I’m proposing that many of us may still be uncertain of how best to do this; indeed that unless we are uncertain we are guaranteed to be making big mistakes.

The languauge around diversity is lacking in counselling – we know that we don’t know, but we don’t know precisely what it is that we’re missing. That language, I propose, can only be developed by positively involving minority groups, and allowing, yes, allowing, them to be experts in their own experience.

Have a listen to this excellent podcast, one of a series, which begins to tease out some of the theory around what it is to be A Minority ™.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s