Empathy and Words in Online and Face to Face Therapy

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Empathy facilitates understanding between counsellors and clients who do not speak the same language. What about online therapy, in which the language is there, without the bodily resonant experience of empathy?

This post was stimulated by Libby’s post, “Body Talk: When Words are Not Enough”, on empathy and the process of counselling between clients and counsellors who do not share the same language. Thanks, Libby!

In my face to face practice, I counsel in Polish, which is not my native tongue. The grammar I use is often incorrect, and the pronunciation of words horribly mangled. This does not appear to bother my clients as much as it bothers me. I do, however, have a good sense of where the clients are coming from. I understand their language within its cultural and social context, as it is one I have lived in myself for years and brought up my children in. While it will never be entirely ‘natural’ to me or ‘in my blood’, for this very reason I also believe that, while I feel immersed in the culture, I can also understand it from a distance, which is helpful.

While empathy for pain, emotional or physical, is a transcultural phenomenon, not dependent on the nuances of linguistic expression of that pain, I do wonder about the ultimate helpfulness of a counsellor who does not understand either the language of the client, or the culture which is embedded in that language. While it is good to be able to communicate on the ‘person to person’ level, in a sense unimpeded by language, and this may even be easier with a client whose language you do not share, the meaning of the particular pain for the client is likely to be self-evidently obvious to them (i.e., they will not explain it) within a social context that the counsellor does not understand.

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In my online therapy practice I use words — and words only. They are words in my native tongue, so I should understand all the ins and outs, shades and tones of them. Of course, my clients, while largely English-speaking, live all over the world, so actually I don’t — but at least I am in full ‘control’ of the ones I use myself. Here, though, something else is missing: there is no empathic sense of the client’s pain which has not somehow sprung directly from the actual words used.

When working with emotionally difficult experiences, this cuts both ways. The palpable, physical empathic presence of a non-judgmental other, which can be so healing, is not there. There is no natural synchronisation of posture and breathing, no way I can make the sounds which replace words in places where no words seem to fit. But this in many cases is exactly what people who sign up for online therapy want. This ‘full on’ empathy with another person in the therapy room is, for myriad reasons, not what they want or choose at that moment in time.

In face to face practice I sometimes miss the subtle accuracy I can use in my language to ‘nail’ something I wish to say, while in online therapy, I sometimes miss the non-verbal communication. Yet words, thoughts, emotions, all take place in the body. When I read the words, and when I write words back, I am engaged, all of me is engaged. I maybe have to use a little conscious effort to keep my attention grounded in my body, but when I do so, empathy arises, intuition works, there is the same sense of ‘something forming’ within the story, of ‘something moving forward’ or ‘something blocked’. The written words are also every bit as individual as the people writing them, people I have not ever seen. Rather than instantly ‘translating’ the words into my own understanding, as I might with a client who is speaking to me (and while I might remember clearly their body position or tone of voice at certain moments, it is likely that I will remember not the precise words but my own understanding of them), in online therapy I have the words right there in front of me. The more I read them, the more I get to know that particular way of expressing that particular experience, the moment in time in which this person wrote to me. It’s as if I could press a ‘repeat’ button and listen to a face to face client all over again, because there was something I missed.

And when I listen, I listen with the body, and when I respond in words, the words also come from the body — whether they explicitly refer to the body or not.

And so yes, I agree with Libby, that communication through empathy, which is a physical experience, is possible when a shared language is lacking, and I add that it is also possible when shared presence is lacking. Yet in both cases there is also a different kind of understanding needed, which remains grounded in the body, but extends to the intricacies of personal meaning for people within their own precise languages and cultures. Life being imperfect, there is always something missing somewhere.

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