Effective Communication- Empathy

Learning to be empathetic to be an effective career development practitioner.

CPD Assessments
Effective Communication - Empathy

Effective Communication - Empathy

Case Study

Near the end of Carl Rogers’ life, he wrote a sarcastic article noting that his conceptualisation of empathy had little to do with the popularised notion of empathy that had become known as 'reflection of feelings'. Rogers may have been particularly angry because there were some fictional stories circulating about his work with clients. One of them goes something like this:

Rogers is seeing a client in his office on the 10th floor of a building. The client tells Rogers that he is really depressed, and Rogers says, “Sounds like you’re really depressed." The client goes on to say that he is thinking of killing himself, and Rogers responds, “You’re so depressed that you’re even thinking you might take your life.” This 'reflection' goes on and on for quite a while until the client eventually declares, “I’m so depressed I’m thinking I might jump out of that window.” Rogers again reflects back, almost verbatim, what the client just said, at which point the client goes over to the window, opens it and says, “I’m so depressed, I’m going to jump out of this window.” Rogers says, “You’re so depressed you might jump out of that window.” Exasperated, the client stands on the ledge, and the last thing out of his mouth as he jumps is, “Ahhhhhh!” Rogers, left in the office alone, repeats, “Ahhhhhh.”

You can understand why Carl Rogers, the person who popularised empathy in the 20th century, was pretty upset by this distorted image of his work. In fact, his actual definition of empathy was much more nuanced than 'reflection of feelings'. Rogers suggested that empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience in the world, as if you were that person, without ever losing the 'as if' sense. He also noted that empathy entails letting the person know that you understand his or her experience. However, he never suggested that one should rely solely on reflection of feelings to show this understanding. In fact, he implied there were many ways to show your clients that you have understood them.

Source: Creative and novel approaches to empathy. Ed Neukrug.

The narrative above looked at how Carl Rogers was mocked for his technique of 'reflection of feelings'. Carl Rogers admitted that being empathetic required more than merely paraphrasing. It requires the ability to understand and sense another’s feelings and communicating this to the other person.


Being an effective career development practitioner requires the practice of empathy. This is a difficult skill to acquire. To experience empathy, career development practitioners have to put themselves in the client’s place and try to feel what the client is feeling. If the practitioner’s empathetic responses are accurate, it will be evident in the client's response. Once this is achieved, effectiveness in communication is greatly enhanced. 

Empathy is the foundation of functional interpersonal relationships. It forms the basis for successful marriages, partnerships, friendships and parental relationships, as well as in work contexts such as managerial, professional-client, student-teacher and peer relationships. Absolutely everyone can benefit from having the skill of being empathetic, although it is a technique most often used in counselling sessions.

Being empathetic to the situations of others can promote trust, leading to open and honest communication, thereby allowing resolution of interpersonal conflicts and constructive change.  

Empathy allows one to connect with others and allows practitioners to identify with another person’s situation. It is both an emotional and intellectual process which makes it easier to understand and help others solve their problems. Empathy can be further broken down into two parts namely: ‘feeling’ the way another person feels and ‘understanding’ how someone else feels. 

The Virtue of Being Empathetic

Practitioners realise that empathy is firstly a state of mind and not a character trait or disposition and secondly being aware and in touch with their own feelings which will allow empathy to flow to others. If practitioners embrace the way they feel, they will be able to extend that to others.

It is important for practitioners to master their practice of empathetic responding or active listening.

Four Stages of Empathetic listening

Empathetic listening can be broken down into stages and it is important to practice the four stages of empathetic listening. 

Stage 1: Copy what is being said. With care, repeat what you hear in order to get further understanding. Repeat it exactly as you think you heard it.

Stage 2: Say what you hear. Repeat the words that were said without adding anything new.

Stage 3: Reflect on the feeling. Try to understand the feeling expressed in what was said, going beyond what you think you heard.

Stage 4: Restate what was said and think about the feeling. This combines stages 2 and 3 in order to understand the message.

Empathetic responding is when the practitioner clearly communicates the feeling the client has expressed as well as why they possess those feelings, according to the client. 

Here are a few examples of empathetic responding:

  • You feel anxious because you are writing an exam.
  • You feel depressed because your grades have come down.
  • You feel angry because you did not get the job you expected.

Another technique that the practitioner could use to engage in conversation is called solicitation. Solicitation responses are used to encourage  clients to explore their feelings further. This is a technique of questioning and is of an empathetic nature as well. Note that these focus on the 'feelings' and why the client feels the way that he/she does.

Examples include:
  • Tell me more about what is making you sad?
  • You said the relationship was traumatic. What made it traumatic for you?
  • Can you describe how you and your girlfriend interacted?
Each of these responses invite the client to explore their feelings.

Other than empathetic listening and responding, there are a few more ways in which a practitioner can show empathy. These include:
  • Not interrupting the client.
  • Not dismissing the client’s beliefs.
  • Not being judgmental.
  • Another way of showing empathy is for the practitioner to match the client’s body language and verbal style.
  • By creating a safe and nurturing environment for the client. This is both literal and figurative. The area should be uncluttered and private. The practitioner should be a calming presence.
  • Use encouraging behaviours to prompt the client to share more information about his/her life circumstance. These include nonverbal cues such as open body posture and verbal cues such as 'um', 'I see', and 'tell me more'.
  • Truly listen to the client’s words and observe nonverbal cues. Every single ounce of attention needs to be focused on the client. Try to see where the client is coming from and what he/she is experiencing.

By respecting the client and what they are saying, the practitioner shows the client that they are trying to feel and understand their unique experience.

Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 2.0 South Africa (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 ZA) 

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Kindly attribute as follows:

Beukes, C. J., Mahadave, K., & Kanhai, K. (2022). Professional Development Portfolio for Career Development Practitioners (1st ed.)CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ZA, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/za/ 


Christopher Beukes

Karuna Mahadave

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