A requirement for being an effective counsellor is being able to practice and impart the skill of empathy in the client-counsellor interaction. Being empathetic ensures you are listening and dealing with the clients concerns as they present them. You are not judging them. In this post we’ll look at how empathy can assist counsellors when dealing with challenging clients. Here are some issues for you to consider:

  1. Intensity — responding to the feelings expressed at the appropriate level of intensity e.g. if you are working with a client. They are very agitated, about to be evicted and their mother is sick. Your response is “You are a bit upset”. The client becomes distant — you have not reflected his/her level of emotion accurately.
  2. Context — take all aspects into account, not just word and non-verbal behaviour. A lot of people we come into contact with have multiple problems in their lives. They may behave in ways we find inappropriate but taken in context of their experience are understandable.
  3. Selective responding — sometimes it may be appropriate to respond only to feelings or behaviour. Some clients do not respond well to discussing their feelings, and in these cases it is useful to focus on more concrete elements, such as experience and behaviour.

When your empathic responses have been successful, it is evident from the client’s response, a nod of the head, or a positive verbal response. If your empathic responses have not been accurate, the client will indicate this non-verbally by stopping, fumbling or becoming frustrated.

Being aware of these signs will assist you in relating to the challenging client. You may need to adjust your approach if the client is not responding to you.

By using empathy in our interactions with clients will:

  1. Build the relationship
  2. Stimulate self-exploration
  3. Check understanding
  4. Provide support
  5. Assist communication
  6. Focus attention on the client

(Hanna, 2001)

A summary of what a counsellor should and shouldn’t do when using empathy with challenging clients

A counsellor should:

  1. Give themself time to think, take time to listen and understand the client’s perspective
  2. Use short responses
  3. Gear your response to the client — but be yourself. e.g. using appropriate language such as “I’m down with the homies” with a young homeless client will make you look silly
  4. Always respond

A counsellor should refrain from:

  1. Asking inappropriate questions
  2. Using clichés
  3. Making interpretations or judgements
  4. Giving advice
  5. Pretending to understand — clarify the facts rather than misinterpret
  6. Parroting or using the client’s exact words
  7. Using sympathy and agreement