Empathy in the Context of Psychotherapy (Talk Therapy)

Absent a gracious and generous listening (empathy), psychotherapy is hard to distinguish from a dental procedure, probing sensitive, tender spots with sharp instruments. Empathy makes all the difference. If a person is going to express difficult and sensitive personal content, then speaking them into an empathic listening is on the critical path to restoring emotional equilibrium and effective action. Empathy is at the top of the list of what is required for creating the possibility of breakthrough results in the areas meaningful to the speaker (the client).

Indeed empathy itself can be transformational. Just having another person really “get” what it is that is challenging, upsetting, or inhibiting an individual can be activating, enabling a person to recover and sustain commitments that produce results. How does “just talking” make a difference? Calling forth experiences and distinctions that already lurk in the background, boldly stating the obvious (and the less obvious), can make a dramatic difference in removing the blinders that prevent a person from seeing what is “obviously hidden in plain view”. This enables the process of growth and development to resume and go forward in an uninhibited way. In other more challenging cases, empathy combined with an inquiry/analysis into the sources of resistance to change – secondary gain – is required to “jump start” the process of getting moving forward emotionally and in action-oriented ways.

A simple rule-of-thumb is that whatever a person’s issue or obstacle is that “whatever” will be brought into the therapeutic situation. So, to take a deceptively simple example, if your issue is procrastination about career, relationships, money, health (well being), then a similar issue will soon arise in relationship to the therapist. You will be unable to make up your mind whether he or she is really right for you; whether you want to meet once a week or more; how firm is the commitment, and so on. The advantage to having the experience in a well defined situation (rather than the messiness of life at large) is that therapy is context that has fewer variables and that can be looked at in detail between just two people. This enables insights and breakthrough is grasping what is the pattern and why it is activated and triggered here-and-now. This enables insights and break throughs to occur that might not be attainable in the more complex, open system of life at large.

The results of talk therapy include enhanced emotional stability, more power to deal with mood fluctuations when those inevitably occur, improved self-expression, power to deal with upsets in a constructive way that gets one moving again, greater capacity for affection and affinity (and its expression), freedom from worry and preoccupations that drain energy, the experience of oneself as having the power to choose and make a contribution, enhanced self-confidence and personal effectiveness. Talk therapy can also enhance personal traits such as empathy, humor, creativity, and even wisdom in the face of life’s challenges. The impact on relations, career, family, finances, self-expression, and the experience of choosing and personal productivity can be dramatic. This list is far from complete.

This is the age of client service. Any therapist of merit is likely to be a pragmatist. After two or three sessions to get to a diagnostic formulation, he (or she) should be prepared to talk frankly about (1) how he proposes to make a difference in dealing with your complaint – a treatment plan (2) the rewards and risks of talk therapy – a therapeutic contract – even if not in writing (3) fee for service (billing) (4) scheduling.

The results of psychotherapy vary from one person to another, so all the usual disclaimers apply (obviously!). Your mileage may vary; and a key variable includes finding someone to talk with candidly and confidentially where the chemistry between the two persons is just right. In this case, “chemistry” means “empathy”.

At the risk of redundancy (and since this IS a blog), I end on a personal note. As I write this, I do so as someone who has been on both sides of the therapist/patient interface as well as the therapist/client one. It is going to sound a tad like bragging here at the backend but if not now when? … Additional qualifications for commenting on empathy in the context of talk therapy is that my works on empathy are footnotes in Goldberg, Wolf, and Basch (see bibliography below).  This list of critical success factors is not complete nor (obviously) is my knowledge and experience; all the usual disclaimers apply; so your feedback, criticism, experiences, impertinent remarks, and contribution are hereby requested. Please let me hear from you.


Agosta, Lou. (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy.London: Palgrave/ Macmillan. [See not link above right.]

__________. (1984). “Empathy and intersubjectivity,” Empathy I, ed. J. Lichtenberg et al.Hillsdale,NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Press.

__________. (1980). “The recovery of feelings in a folktale,” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1980: 287-97.

__________. (1976). “Intersecting language in psychoanalysis and philosophy,” International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Vol. 5, 1976: 507-34.

Basch, Michael F. (1983). “Empathic understanding: a review of the concept and some theoretical considerations,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 31, No. 1: 101-126. (See p. 114.) .

Gehrie, Mark (2011). “From archaic narcissism to empathy for the self: the evolution of new capacities in psychoanalysis,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 59, No. 2: 313-333.

Goldberg, Arnold. (2011). “The enduring presence of Heinz Kohut: empathy and its vicissitudes,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. 59, No. 2: 289-311. (See  pp. 296, 309.) .

Kohut, Heinz. (1984). How Does Analysis Cure? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wolf, Ernest S. (1988). Treating the Self.New York: The Guilford Press. (See pp. 17, 171.)

This post and all contents of this site (c) Lou Agosta, Ph.D. and the Chicago Empathy Project

Categories: Einfühlung, Emotions, empathic interpretation, empathic receptivity, Empathy, Feeling, Introspection, Plato Not Prozac, talk therapy

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