What the **** is ‘idiosyncratic empathy?’

What a corker of a term – and a concept. Coined by someone with a corker of a name: Jerold Bozarth, a big fish in the person-centred therapy world, who sadly died last month. I’m grateful to Bozarth, who posited that an empathic response could take a plethora of forms. He discerned exactly how empathy could be different from simply reflecting back an understanding of someone else’s shoes (metaphorical footwear, if you will).

Specifically, Bozarth (1984) said that a response was also empathic if it:
a. Comes authentically from me as an individual
b. Is in response to another as an individual
c. Arises from the here-and-now context

Eh? I hear you say. Let me give an example. Easy-to-identify empathy may sound something like, ‘you’re ambivalent’. An idiosyncratic empathic response may be something like, ‘I could tell you what I know about x and y if you would like that’.

The first part of the sentence (in italics) comes authentically from me as an individual: a., above. The rest of the sentence (‘if you would like that’) is in response to another as an individual: b. above. Regarding c., i.e. arising from the ‘here-and-now context’, we are talking about overall meaning and possibly content. In other words, the ‘x and y’ that I’m offering to say more about is somehow consistent with the original comment(s) made.

Idiosyncratic empathy therefore precludes anything general, for example stock responses made to various clients. These would not be responses from an individual, to an individual, in a specific context.

For someone like me who’s pretty disciplined about what comes out of my mouth in the old 50 minutes, buying into this is a revelation. By ‘buying into’, I mean I agree heartily with making room for personal, unscripted responses in the counselling room. However, I feel strongly that idiosyncratic empathy has to be married with discipline; it’s not a green light for anything goes. And similarly on the other side, that there is no place for bland, vanilla responses in person-centred therapy (‘idiotic empathy…’).

References

Bozarth, J. D., (1984) Beyond reflection: Emergent modes of empathy, in R. Levant & J. Shlein (Eds). In Client-centered Therapy and the Person-centered approach. New York, Praeger

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