Counseling Exercises Part I: Where Did the Empathy Go?

Two men sitting at a table having a conversation. Representing counseling exercises and how they can help you with empathy.Have we become so busy and consumed by our own troubles and worries that we no longer have room or capacity for empathy? One of the very traits that distinguishes us from other creatures is our ability to have empathy. Put simply, empathy is the ability to see things from another person’s perspective, to “put yourself in their shoes” for a moment. It’s not sympathy, where we feel sorry for someone or where we take on their feelings. It’s the keen ability to take a step over to the other person’s corner and really understand what they might be going through and how that might be feeling. Empathy doesn’t mean you have to agree with the person, it doesn’t mean they are right and you are wrong, it really just means you are getting a glimpse of what they see and how they see it. Counseling exercises can help you challenge yourself by taking time to intentionally feel more empathy.

If only we could empathize with those who are choosing to stay home to protect themselves and their family from COVID, and empathize with those who are so lonely and isolated from staying home that they feel going outside is the only thing that will bring a bright spot to their day. And let’s look at those protesting, they are so hurt and frustrated by a chain of inaction that they feel moved and responsible for taking this action. It does not mean you have to agree with anyone’s choices or actions it simply means that you can take a step into their corner and try to understand things from their perspective. If you have difficulty understanding what they are feeling just ask them! And again, it’s not about changing their mind, entering a debate, educating someone, it’s simply seeing things from their side for a moment in time and articulating what it is that you see to them – this can be extremely validating and healing for the individual. This is where connection is formed.

Using Counseling Exercises During Challenging Times

In these very challenging and odd times that we are all going through it is so easy to be caught up in our own stressors that we forget how others might be struggling and the effect we may be having on them. This can in turn create strained relationships with those you love, unpleasant encounters with neighbors or bypassers and wounded friendships. All of which can lead to more stressors.

My challenge to you – The next time you are in an argument or heated discussion with your significant other, father, mother, sister, boss, whoever it may be, stop and see if you can find room for empathy with simple counseling exercises. Put aside your own ego for two minutes and try to understand that person’s perspective. Here are a few tools for you in the process:

  1. Stop, breathe and be silent.
  2. Listen to the other person. Really listen, without your own agenda, without formulating your response.
  3. Think about what the other person might be feeling (are they frustrated, sad, lonely, disappointed?)
  4. Let go. You may be wanting to defend yourself, you may want to problem solve, or you may be in a rush to get out of there.
  5. Now state back to the person what you are hearing from them and what emotions you think they are experiencing (i.e. “It sounds like you had a really rough day and are frustrated with your boss,” or “It sounds like you were hoping we could have spent more time together and are disappointed that did not happen.”)
  6. Stop there! That is it! No need to defend yourself, no need to explain. Just let your simple reflection to the other person sink in.

This tool, in combination with other counseling and relationship exercises, can help you open your mind more to what others are feeling, and achieve more empathy.

Therapy at Freedom Within

The good news is that we, as therapists, excel at this skill! We are taught this in our education, we practice it in our daily life and we utilize it with our clients. This is why people feel so comfortable sharing things with a counselor that they would not feel comfortable sharing with others. During counseling exercises, we articulate empathy, non-judgment, validation and understanding. And again, it doesn’t mean we agree or disagree with what our clients are saying, it simply means we are understanding their experiences and feelings from their perspective. Just being in that space with someone of sitting with their emotions is one of the most powerful things you can do!

Freedom Within uses individual counseling exercises and couple counseling exercises to help clients be more intentional and achieve their goals. To learn more, request an appointment, or visit our Facebook page for in-depth videos explaining how to really listen to others and convey empathy and understanding.