Jennifer Knetig, Alumna, School of Psychology (2012); Chaya Rubin, Student, School of Psychology; Sherry L. Hatcher, Faculty, School of Psychology
Statement of the Problem: Viewed by many as the foundation of the therapeutic process, empathy is a key tool by which the therapeutic alliance is formed. This foundation is necessary to the therapist’s work regardless of theoretical orientation. Derived from the dataset of Hatcher, et al., (2005), the present study further explored questionnaire items that were outside of the analogue study asking experienced therapists for examples in their actual practice as to when they believe they were empathic with a client, and examples of times the therapist believes he or she failed to be empathic to a client. In identifying the importance of reference points as predictors of an empathic response, Hatcher et al, found that when psychotherapists could access a cognitive or affective reference point from their own lives which was relevant in some way to a client’s experience, they were more likely to actualize an empathic response in the analogue situation. The present study explored this question with regard to the therapists’ real life cases and proposes some mechanisms that underlie a therapist’s capacity to be empathic with clients.
Procedure: Two questions previously unanalyzed from the original study (Hatcher et al., 2005) were used in the present study. Each therapist was asked to respond to all parts of the following 2 questions: 1) Please describe an instance from your actual therapy practice in which you felt considerable empathy for a client with an experience very different from your own. a) Describe this experience, b) how you dealt with it, c) what came to mind about the interaction, perhaps something from your own life? d) How did you feel about this experience? And 2) Please describe an instance from your actual therapy practice in which you had difficulty feeling empathy for a client with an experience very different from your own (a, b, c, d, as above for 1.)
Using content analysis to explore this archival data, researchers identified four particularly relevant variables. These included how the therapist conceptualizes the patient in each situation (empathic/not empathic), whether or not a reference point was identified from the therapist’s own life, the therapist’s identified theoretical orientation, and the reported therapeutic outcome.
Results: A number of statistically significant findings emerged in analysis of the data. In particular, we found that the therapist-participants conceptualized each client as either vulnerable, culpable, or expressed no judgment. Further, we noted instances where the therapist reported using a reference point in an effort to empathize with the client, and instances where the therapist reportedly did not make use of a reference point. Participant therapists self-identified as either process oriented, behaviorally oriented, or integrative. Finally, the therapists in our sample reported either a positive, negative, or mixed therapeutic outcome.