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The Role of Empathy and Active Listening: Insights from a Relational Therapist

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

What is empathy and why is it important in relationships and therapy? Well, simply put it is the ability to walk a mile in someone’s shoes or to imagine what it might be like to experience what the other person is feeling. The act of lending our empathy to another person helps us to better understand why they might behave the way they do. It also, more importantly, makes sense of why they might be behaving a particular way in the relationship. In this blog from us here at the Holding Space, we take a dive into the role empathy and active listening play in Relational Therapy.

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Experiencing Empathy through Active Listening


One way to experience empathy is through active listening. Listening becomes active when it includes listening for more than the “content” of what someone is saying. Instead listening for the deeper feelings and associations that are underneath the content. To better understand this idea, you might imagine a good friend telling you about a bad day they had at work and how someone they knew just got fired. The information they are giving you is the content, but what is underneath might be many feelings… fear, anger, sadness.


If we take it a step further, you knew that your friend had just started this job after several months of being unemployed so you might be able to imagine how destabilizing it would feel to know that someone at their new job was fired. You can imagine how good it might feel to have a friend who listens to you in this deeper way. A friend who digs beneath the surface to better understand you. It is a powerful way of connecting and feeling attuned with.


Building Relational Strength Around Wounds


One of the foundations of a good therapeutic relationship is trusting that the therapist is listening with empathy and care. Another way of saying this is “being held in mind” by the therapist. This is one way that the therapist and client connect and how healing can begin to happen. Sometimes people come into therapy never having been truly listened to or considered in their early childhood experience. Therapy cannot make up for the painful misses of our early experience. But, it can begin to build relational strength around wounds of being misunderstood, and receiving repair when inevitable ruptures happen in important relationships.


In relational therapy, the relationship between the client and the relational therapist is an important aspect of the therapeutic process. What we often tell clients is that “it would be weird if what happens out in your life, never happened here.” In other words, we expect that feelings and behaviors that come up in your day-to-day life may, at some point, show up in the therapy room. In some forms of therapy, the therapist wouldn’t necessarily share their experience of the client WITH the client. In relational therapy, the therapist acknowledges the realness of the relationship and makes interpretations about the relationship.


It should be said that a therapeutic relationship is not the same as other relationships. There are boundaries like laws and ethics that provide safety, there is a fee and there is a time limit for the session. These constraints on the relationship are there to keep the therapy space a safe holding environment. It allows the client to feel and express aspects of themselves that may not feel safe or appropriate to express in their day-to-day lives. The boundaries do NOT mean that the therapist doesn’t feel care and concern in the therapeutic relationship.

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A Relational Therapist is Trained to Interpret without Judgement


One difference between a therapist and a friend lies in a therapist's training to make connections and interpretations within the therapy space. This is usually done without judgment or defensiveness. An example might be if a client talks about how hard it is to get to work on time and that they aren’t sure why that is. The therapist might notice with the client that they also seem to have trouble getting to the therapy appointment on time and wonder if there might be a connection. Maybe the client is feeling some ambivalence about going to work and going to therapy. Perhaps they have not expressed frustration or other feelings to someone and it is causing a hesitation to get to work.


In relational therapy, the therapist may ask directly, "I wonder what might be keeping you from getting here on time? or "Is there anything that has felt off or needs attention?" This isn't to make the client feel bad. Instead, it's to create a natural and comfortable space to discuss conflict or deeper feelings that might otherwise go unexpressed. If the client shares these feelings with the therapist, they might discover a newfound confidence to express their needs at work and, as a result, no longer be late. Relational therapy can feel a little vulnerable in the beginning. That is because many of us never learned to be direct about our needs, wants, and feelings. We may have also never received constructive and caring feedback about how we are impacting others.


Work with a Relational Therapist with Relational Therapy in Los Angeles, CA

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The power of relationships is hard to deny. We are wired for connection. Relationships are often the cause of some of our most painful wounds, but often they are what we need for healing, joy, and change. The Holding Space specializes in Relational Therapy in Los Angeles, CA. We offer a safe environment for individuals to learn how to empathize, listen, express their needs, and navigate conflict more directly. Our skilled relational therapists understand the importance of creating a space where clients can trust that they will be heard and understood. This space fosters a journey toward healing and positive change. Follow the steps below to begin:

  1. Reach out to schedule a free consultation.

  2. Speak with a caring relational therapist.

  3. Start the journey toward healing.

Other Therapy Services Offered at The Holding Space in Los Angeles, CA


At The Holding Space, we provide more than just Relational Therapy in Los Angeles, CA. We offer different kinds of therapy to help individuals manage their mental health and well-being better. Our skilled therapists focus on areas like Anxiety treatment, Couples Therapy, Depression treatment, Addiction Therapy, Art Therapy, Brainspotting Therapy, and LGBTQ+ Affirmative Therapy. We also talk about common issues like relationships, family, parenting, codependency, illness, and trauma. Whether you need help with relationships or other important parts of your life, our practice in Los Angeles is here for you. Whether you're seeking help for relational issues or any other aspect of your life, our Los Angeles-based practice is here for you. Reach out today to explore the support we offer and take the first step toward a happier, more fulfilling future.

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