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  • Therapists possess and utilize many skills, but a very important response for them to master in their practice is empathetic responding or active listening.
  • Empathic responding is when the counselor clearly communicates the feeling their client has expressed as well as why they possess those feelings (again, according to the client); this is superior to all other responses in therapy.
  • Reflective listening differs in that it doesn’t always reflect both feeling and content. Typically speaking, the client’s feelings are not clearly communicated back to them.
  • Another beneficial response is solicitation. Solicitation responses are used to encourage their client to explore their feelings further.
  • Solicitation responses succeed in developing a positive therapeutic relationship between counselor and client.

Have you ever wondered what makes for a positive therapist-client relationship and overall successful therapy journey? Maybe you’re a past/present therapy client who wants to better understand how this process works. Maybe you’re considering therapy and you’re hoping for some insight that’ll help you to believe in the journey. Whatever the case may be, you’ll learn about a little something called empathic responding (perhaps better known as active listening), courtesy of Steve Sultanoff. Sultanoff, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, professional speaker, and professor at Pepperdine University. When asked about the very best practices in counseling, he delved into empathic responding and described it as “superior to all other responses.” Below, he explains what exactly empathic responding is and why it’s beneficial (even necessary) to the therapeutic process:

“Clearly, there is one type of response that therapists make that is superior to all others. Research has consistently found that the major factor in positive outcome in psychotherapy is the relationship or alliance between the therapist and the client. There is one type of response therapists make to clients that powerfully builds that alliance and is superior to all other responses.

Human beings (and even therapy clients/patients) thrive/grow/ improve when they feel understood. This is one of the most powerful healers for many reasons. The therapist response (albeit I hate to label it a technique as it is not turned on and off like a technique but becomes part of the fabric of the therapist both in and out of therapy) is empathic responding sometimes referred to as reflective listening or active listening. Empathic responding is when the therapist reflects (consistently) to the client BOTH the feeling that the client is experiencing and the reason for that feeling (as expressed by the client).

Here are a few examples of empathic responding:

  1. You feel anxious because you are giving a presentation at work.
  2. You feel depressed because your relationship ended.
  3. You feel angry because you did not receive the raise you expected.

Reflective listening may not reflect both feeling and content. Here are a few reflective statements that are not empathic responses:

  1. I hear you are giving a presentation at work.
  2. You feel that your relationship could have continued.
  3. You feel that your boss was not fair in her decision.

Note: none of the above three reflects ‘feeling’ which is part of a true empathic response. Another response (again, I hate to label it a technique) is called solicitation. Solicitation responses are those the therapist makes that invite the client to explore further. Examples include:

  1. Tell me more about what is making you anxious.
  2. You said the relationship was traumatic. What made it traumatic for you?
  3. Describe how you and your boss interacted.

Each of these responses invites the client to explore. They are superior in building the relationship and developing a positive outcome in therapy.”

Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is a staff writer at Thriveworks. She devotes herself to distributing important information about mental health and wellbeing, writing mental health news and self-improvement tips daily. Taylor received her bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism, with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book and has published content on Thought Catalog, Odyssey, and The Traveling Parent.

Check out “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book” written by AJ Centore and Taylor Bennett."

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