Defining Empathy Skills in Practice: Carl Rogers and Unconditional Regard
The social context
“...deep understanding is, I believe, the most precious gift one can give to another.” - Carl Rogers
“People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row.” - David Brooks in an op-ed piece in the New York Times of 29 May 2009.
It seems the importance of empathy in our lives is understood by some, but perhaps practised by rather fewer people.
The purpose of this article is not to examine why that might be. The purpose of this article is rather to define empathy by examining something of the practical application of empathy, to see how we can use the skill, because it is a learnable skill, in daily life, as we go about our everyday business.
Empathy is defined by Carl Rogers as a core condition for successful counselling, although counseling as such is not the focus of this article.
The Rogers quote above indicates that empathy is important in relationships, in our interactions with people. Brooks is pointing to the attitudinal side of empathy, that empathy is an attitude, a feeling that we have. And that it is what he terms a “social emotion,” an emotion that is found in a social context where the lack of it is clearly, in his view, a threat to society.
The psychological context
Empathy as a social emotion is a vital component, an important and useful skill, in many social situations. It is the factor that improves relationships of all kinds, between parents and children, between lovers, between managers and their people, between team members at work or on the sports field.
Psychologist Carl Rogers, in his various writings, points out that the value of empathy in relationships works in the context of two other factors and should be understood in the context of the three factors together. The factors, which Rogers calls the “attitudinal elements making for growth”, are, besides empathy, congruence (also called realness) and caring (also called unconditional positive regard).
These three “attitudinal elements” fit together and in fact overlap to form what could be called a “person-centered philosophical approach.” The figure illustrates this.
Empathy, in the context in which this article is considering it, is the ability to enter, by a willed use of the imagination, another person's world without judgement. A broader understanding of empathy was considered in my previous article about the philosophical aspects of empathy, empathy as a broad way of perceiving the world and the connectedness of all living things.
In this context it is important to realise that empathy does not connote agreement. Empathy means understanding another person's feeling without passing any judgement on the appropriateness or otherwise of the feeling.
Prof. Robert Elliott of the University of Strathclyde explains congruence
Congruence is, Rogers writes, “the term we have used to indicate an accurate matching of experiencing and awareness.” He continues that it can be extended to cover a “matching of experience, awareness and communication.” The interesting corollary to congruence is that, to quote Rogers again, “Accurate awareness of experience would always be expressed as feelings, perceptions, meanings, from an internal frame of reference.” (His italics).
At its simplest congruence implies an accurate outward expression of the inner reality. Taking a simple example, a person who shouts, while thumping a table, “I'm not angry”, would immediately be experienced by the other person as incongruent, even though they might not have named the concept “congruence”. The communication on the emotional level is not in keeping with the intellectual content of the words “I'm not angry.” When communication takes place in this fashion it becomes difficult to trust the communication or the communicator. One doesn't know where one stands with such a person, or in such a situation.
Unconditional Positive Regard
The third attitudinal factor is the acceptance of the other person, completely and without judgement. It involves allowing the other person, without reserve or conditions, in Rogers's words: “...to have his own feelings and experiences, and to find his own meanings in them.” (From “Significant Learning: In Therapy and Education”, in Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.)
This full caring and acceptance is a pre-condition for openness between people, for complete honesty. When it is lacking the response is likely to be a closing off, the erection of barriers between people, and a consequent lack of honesty, or at least total honesty, between people. People will only communicate that which they feel safe to communicate, which might mean the self-censorship of their feelings and other responses.
Lyrics of "Nowhere Near"
Do you know how I feel
How I feel about you
Do you know this is real
How I feel around you
When I see you look at me
I'm not sure of anything
All I know is when you smile
I believe in everything
Do you know how I dream
How I dream about you
Do you know how I feel
Do you know...
Do you know how I feel
How I feel about you
Doesn't take much to tell
That I love, oh, I...
Everyone is here, but you're nowhere near
The communication context and Johari
"O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:" - Robert Burns: “To A Louse”
As Rogers points out, it is not enough that a person has these attitudes, they must be also experienced by the other person in the relationship. This means that a manager interacting with a subordinate, a team member interacting with another team member, spouses communicating, parents interacting with children, teachers in the classroom, all will find their relationships more effective if they are able to communicate to others their congruence, empathy and positive regard.
One way to understand how this happens is to use the famous Johari Window model. Introduced by psychologists Joe Ingham and Harry Luft in 1955, this model is a metaphorical way of understanding human interactions.
The model is a four-paned “window” in which each window represents a level of interpersonal awareness. Specifically the position of the vertical “bar” is affected by a person's ready to seek feedback from others and the position of the horizontal “bar” is affected by the person's readiness to give feedback or to disclose personal information.
The model is formed by the intersection of what is known to self and what is known to others, what is unknown to self and what is unknown to others. Let's personalise this a bit as we examine the meanings of the four panes, by referring the model to “me” as the prime actor.
In the Arena is information known to both myself and to others. It is freely available information. This information can be about my attitudes, values, feelings, hopes and fears, whatever is going on inside the person. It represents then a person who is in a sense an “open book” to others.
In the Blind Spot is information that the I am unaware of, but that others are aware of. In a communication setting this is most often about the impact I might be having on others. How others perceive me is quite critical to know if I want to be effective as, say, a manager. I need to know how others feel about me or I will likely make some of the blunders that Burns wrote of.
The Façade is the information that I know about myself but have not shared, or do not want to share, with others. This information could be as trivial as the fact that my underpants have holes in them or it could be as serious as the fact that I am dying of cancer. Most importantly it could be information like how I am responding to others in the communication context.
The Unknown or Unconscious quadrant has to do with information neither I nor others have about me. This is information which, while it might have profound effects on our communication, is not available to either myself or to others to work with. It is an area of mystery and, outside of a therapeutic relationship, is seldom consciously worked on.
The theory is that communication taking place in the “Arena” will be, in most circumstances, the best and most effective communication.
If the person initiating an interaction is congruent, empathetic and has unconditional positive regard for the other person, and is open to receiving communication based on the same principles from the other person, then the interaction is likely to take place through the “Arena”
In practise, when a person asks for and gives feedback the vertical and horizontal bars of the model are shifted, increasing the size of the “Arena” pane, facilitating open communication. At the same time the effect of moving the two bars actually decreases the sizes, not only of the “Blind Spot” and the “Façade”, but also of the “Unknown”.
This is because the person, by being open to receiving and to giving feedback, is becoming more sensitive to the unconscious. Those vague and sometimes frightening shadows that lurk in the unconscious are becoming more known, coming into the light of the mutual trust that grows with openness and honesty, with understanding and humility. Empathy is the key, and works best in a context in which there is congruence and unconditional positive regard.
Without going into details here there is a need to understand that openness of this kind is not always and in all situations appropriate. There are times when we need to defend ourselves, to close up, for our own well-being. The more open the “Arena” the greater the intimacy of communication which is not appropriate in all situations.
Audrey Hepburn gives a lesson in empathy
How to communicate empathy
“To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground.” - Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon and Schuster, 1992).
“Do not come near; take off your sandals because the place you are standing is holy ground.” God speaking to Moses from the burning bush, Exodus 3: 5.
Human beings are precious. Their values, thoughts and independence are very important to them. When dealing with another person one has to know that one is “walking on holy ground.” So these aspects of communication are not playthings, and should be approached and used with humility and the intention of doing good, of providing mutual opportunities for growth.
If I use these skills simply as “techniques” to win over other people, or to bend them to my will, or to show my superiority, then I am not being empathetic, and I am forgetting that I am walking on holy ground. We should approach other people as Moses approached the burning bush, without sandals (protection or defences), and we should not come closer to them than they will allow.
Our use of empathy, to be real and honest, needs to be in the spirit of the Prayer of St Francis: “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek ...to be understood, as to understand;...to be loved, as to love.”
How to be empathetic involves firstly listening, listening not just to the words being spoken, but listening for what the reality is behind the words, what the other person's understanding is of the reality, what meaning the other person ascribes to what he or she perceives as the reality. It is listening without judgement, without any need to change the other person. It is listening with a completely unconditional positive regard.
Only about 7% to 10% of the full meaning of communication is conveyed by the words spoken. The balance is found in the myriad of non-verbal psychological cues which the speaking person gives while speaking. Being sensitive to those clues is what empathy is all about in relationships.
So communicating empathetically is not just the technique of reflecting back to the speaker what they say in words, it is struggling to put into words my understanding of the totality of their communication (their words and the other psychological cues I have picked up), and then allowing them to correct what I have understood. In Johari Window terms this is both disclosing (moving the horizontal bar of the Johari Window down) and asking for feedback on my disclosure (moving the vertical bar to the right).
On a very practical level the effort made to fully understand the other person's point of view or understanding of an issue is helpful in ensuring that decisions are made with the fullest possible information. At the very least the other person might have seen something that I didn't see, something which might have a major impact on decisions or the outcomes of decisions.
Shakespeare, in Hamlet, gave a very vivid illustration of the fact that we all perceive things very differently, and can become quite caught up in “our” way of seeing “reality”, a “reality” which might look veryn different to someone else.
HAMLET: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in the shape of a camel?
POLONIUS: By th' mass, and 'tis like a camel indeed.
HAMLET: Methinks it is like a weasel.
POLONIUS: It is backt like a weasel.
HAMLET: Or like a whale?
POLONIUS: Very like a whale.
So, was that cloud like a camel, a weasel or a whale? Most likely it was all three, in a way similar to the two “realities” in the famous “old woman, young woman” ambiguous figure. Empathy, really applied to communication, would help us together build a full picture of reality, unlike the blind men who tried to describe the elephant they could not see, but only feel:
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen! - John Godfrey Saxe, "The Blind Men and the Elephant"
As Covey states: “Empathic listening takes time, but it doesn't take anywhere near as much time as it takes to back up and correct misunderstandings when you're already miles down the road, to redo, to live with unexpressed and unsolved problems, to deal with the results of not giving people psychological air.”