In early December of last year I had the good fortune to be joined by two of my favorite trainer colleagues, Lisa Palmer-Olsen from San Diego and Jim Furrow from Los Angeles, for an advanced EFT training here in Chicago. About half of the 28 participants were from the Chicago area, the remainder from around the country or beyond, and I knew all but a small handful from previous trainings I’ve done here and there. Lisa created the training format – she calls it a Dig-In – to maximize experiential learning of EFT. In smallish groups, participants well versed in EFT have an opportunity to identify and work on specific challenges in learning the model, often framed as ‘self of therapist’ concerns, in a supportive atmosphere. The idea is that tuning into and working with our own experience in the process of learning and practicing EFT are key to our competence and effectiveness. This is hugely important for us all: after all, no humanistic/experiential approach to therapy can be reduced to mere lists of interventions or steps and stages. I always learn something new from Lisa and Jim – both are very experienced and creative leaders – and this time was no exception.
Here are three takeaways from the training that in some way relate to the therapist’s use of self. They all stuck out for me in some way, and judging from the evaluations, for many of the participants as well.
- An important distinction between empathy and attunement
- Checking our internal experience re-orients us when we get lost in the content or process
- Transparency in the moment helps us get unstuck and clients feel joined with
Each is fertile ground for reflection and discussion so starting with this entry I’m doing a three-part mini-series addressing each subject in some detail. Today’s entry:
How are empathy and attunement alike and different?
We all know how vital empathy is. Helping clients feel understood is essential to feeling the safety to be open and vulnerable and to take risks to ask for attachment needs to be met. One of the best descriptions of empathy I’ve seen comes from David G. Martin’s Counseling and Psychotherapy Skills, 3rd ed. (2010). It’s written for grad students in psychotherapy courses. I like it because it’s simple and focuses on the ‘intended’ and ‘implicit’ elements of communication. He writes,
“Empathy is “communicated understanding of the other person’s intended message, especially the experiential/emotional part.” (Quotation original). Every word counts in this definition. It is not enough to understand what the person said; you must hear what he or she meant to say, the intended message. (italics original) It is not enough to understand, even deeply; you must communicate that understanding somehow. It is absolutely essential that the other person feel understood – that the understanding be perceived…”. And later, “You will be listening for what your client is trying to say, and one way you will be doing this is to hear the feelings implicit in his or her message.” (p.4).
Of course we all do this by paying careful attention not only to their words, but also to the rich nonverbal and paraverbal communication. I once heard EFT originator and researcher, Dr. Les Greenberg, say at a training that ‘85% of what come out of people’s mouths is noise’. It was his rather direct way of saying that we need to pay attention to many routes and levels of communication. Others have estimated that three-fourths or more of communication is non-verbal, and all therapy approaches recognize nonverbal communication as a cornerstone of understanding and empathizing with our clients.
So how does attunement differ? To begin with, it involves how to use empathy. Having a very clear sense of the implicit message of, in Martin’s words, “what your client is trying to say” is essential, but knowing how and when to work with this is just as important and often requires a deft touch. It’s a very good thing to know that underneath a client’s angry expression lays uncertainty and fear, but the benefit gets lost if I bring it up before he’s ready to have it known. Attunement means being in step with where clients are in the process of letting themselves be known – both by us and their partners. In watching session videos and role-play practice I’ve seen many therapists be spot-on in recognizing the client’s experience in the moment and yet be too far ahead of what the client can tolerate in the moment. The result? The client steps back or resists, trying to keep from feeling over-exposed.
Here’s a suggestion that often helps clients feel both our empathy and attunement. Let’s say my client is talking in a couple session about being reluctant to engage with his partner and share the insecurity he feels in the relationship, so instead he keeps his distance rather than risk being rejected. It’s clear to me that he feels a general fear of rejection by her, that he may not be so important to her. He says a little tentatively, “I know it’s a little silly, but I just wonder if she would even be with me if it weren’t for the kids, and then I feel like I need to be careful about what I ask of her.” It’s clear he’s on the very edge of what he’s ready to say, especially in her presence, but it’s important that he be able to convey that his careful distance – that she sees as a sign of disinterest – is an attempt to protect himself. So I reflect what he’s said and add just a tiny bit and give him a chance to catch up, to verify or differ. “It’s a big question to carry around – unresolved; no wonder you’re careful about engaging with her. So you look carefully for the signs that say she still cares about you, that she wants to be with you.” If he says, “Yes, exactly, it feels like I’m always on the lookout…”, I know we’re well attuned and he’s ready to be nudged slightly in disclosing his fears. If on the other hand, he says, “I try not to get to caught up in the vagaries of what every little comment means”, then it’s clear I’ve pushed a bit too much for the moment and I need to time it more carefully.
The nice thing is that therapeutic attunement has a built in trial and error process with most folks. While it’s hard on the alliance if we’re constantly a little off or way off on occasion, most clients are willing to guide us a bit when we need it. After all, they want to be understood and often we’re the first step in helping them feel understood by their partner.