• Therapists possess and utilize many skills, but a very important response for them to master within 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).
  • Though it may sound like reflective listening, they differ in that empathic responding doesn’t always reflect both feeling and content.
  • Another beneficial response is solicitation. Solicitation responses are used to encourage the 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 an 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 start believing in the journey. Whatever the case may be, you’ll learn a little about something called empathic responding (perhaps better known as active listening).

Empathic Responding

Steve Sultanoff, Ph.D., 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.” 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 outcomes 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 clients) thrive and grow 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

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 these reflect ‘feeling’ which is part of a true empathic response. Another response 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.