Carl Rogers made empathy the cornerstone of his approach. But what, exactly, is empathy? Rogers spent his career thinking deeply about this question. Here’s the definition he offered in his 1959 chapter:
“The state of empathy, or being empathic, is to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy, and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto, as if one were the other person, but without ever losing the “as if” condition.
Thus it means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it, and to perceive the causes thereof as he perceives them, but without ever losing the recognition that it is as if I were hurt or pleased, etc. If this “as if” quality is lost, then the state is one of identification.”
Later, Rogers came to believe that empathy was better thought of as a “process” than a “state.” In a lecture delivered in 1974, he talked about empathy this way:
“The way of being with a person, which is termed “empathic,” has several facets:
It means entering the private perceptual world of the other, and becoming thoroughly at home in it.
It involves being sensitive, moment-to-moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person — to the fear, or rage, or tenderness, or confusion, or whatever, that he or she is experiencing.
It means temporarily living in his life, moving about in it delicately, without making judgments, sensing meanings of which he is scarcely aware, but not trying to uncover feelings of which is totally unaware, since this would be too threatening.
It includes communicating your sensings of his world, as you look with fresh and unfrightened eyes, at elements of which he is fearful. It means frequently checking with him as to the accuracy of your sensings, and being guided by his responses.
You are a confident companion to him in his world. By pointing to the possible meanings in the flow of his or her experiencing, you help him to focus on this useful type of referent, to experience his meanings more fully, and move forward in his or her experiencing.
Now to be with another in this way it means that for the time being, you lay aside the views and values that you hold for yourself, in order to enter his world without prejudice. In some sense it means that you lay aside yourself; and this can only be done by a person secure enough in himself that he knows he will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other. and can comfortably return to his own world when he wishes.
Being empathic is a complex, demanding, strong, yet subtle and gentle way of being.