Our experience changes not only through new perceiving, but also through being newly perceived. A key issue is how we perceive ourselves being perceived. This is a major concern in Client-Centered Therapy.
The therapist observes all that the client expresses with a deep and caring interest, endeavoring to discern the most poignant aspect of whatever it is the client reports. This requires a careful, focused attention, along with the activation of an empathic process.
The therapist then communicates back to the client what they have understood. This is maximally important. If the client experiences themselves as genuinely, accurately, and acceptingly understood, this itself stirs a change in a positive direction.
The initial pain may still be present, but now the client can approach it with less sense of isolation and shame. Pain is an inescapable aspect of life, but we bear it better if we bear it together, and share it without being judged.
ln client-centered therapy, the catalytic agent is the therapist’s empathic understanding and acceptance. But in this theory, the term “empathy” refers to something that is a great deal more than mere cognitive understanding. It is a holistic, implicit sense of things, a resonating, a felt understanding.
Despite the relative prestige of explicit verbal denotation, this more implicit felt understanding can be just as differentiated, specific, and accurate as verbal propositions— and actually much more helpful in healing emotional pain.
Of course, when we talk, we use words. The client expresses themselves in words — vocabulary and syntax. But also via pitch, timbre, rhythm, tempo, facial expression, tears, laughter, posture, breathing, muscular tension, gesture, etc. It is the totality of all of these elements taken together that offers clues to the felt meaning of the client’s experience. Words by themselves simply cannot and do not carry the full weight and meaning of experience.
Thus, in client-centered responding, we use all of these same channels of communication. And this is how the client knows that they’ve been received and understood.
To learn the client-centered empathic process is to dethrone — not abandon — explicit, cognitive understandings, and center ourselves in the realm of felt experience. It’s quite a different mode from our usual, instrumental away of approaching things. We have to train ourselves to enter this mode, and practice it often, lest we treat our clients as problems to be fixed, rather than persons to be understood.