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(OHara 1997)

Maureen O'Hara
Center for Studies of the Person, La Jolla, Californ

In the beginning was the relationship - Martin Buber

'Considering empathy as both construct and human activity, the chapter contributes to the fast-growing discussion of the limits of the indigenous psychology of the Western world in addressing the relational needs of its members. In particular it examines the limits of Modernist individualism as a paradigm for understanding human experience, and on ways Western psychological descriptions and understandings of empathy in particular — whether Rogerian, psychoanalytic, existential or more generic — have obscured some of the important ways empathy functions in human relationships. Because of its position as a modernist, objectivist discourse, Western psychology has been slow to recognize how its own modes of enquiry and expression have limited our understanding of relational realities. 

The chapter extends understanding of empathy beyond its present role as the "royal road to understanding" of individuals by approaching it from within somewhat different frames of reference from those traditionally characteristic of psychological discussion. Empathy is then discussed in a more multi-levelled or holistic way as a way of being in, belonging to and knowing the relational contexts in which human beings find ourselves situated. Although the main arguments expand understanding of empathy as a therapeutic process the chapter concludes with a discussion of the social conditions of late twentieth century psychology. 

As our world undergoes what some consider to be the birth pangs of its first truly "global civilization", in which national, ethnic, religious, gender, class, boundaries are being shifted and erased on unprecedented scales, all of us, whether in formerly tribal or collectivist societies or in Western individualist ones, will need new postmodernist psychologies with which to navigate this new world.'


Description of Relational Empathy

"Relational Knowing From within a sociocentric frame of reference, it becomes possible to understand empathy as a state of consciousness. It is a way of perceiving and knowing and a way of being connected to other consciousnesses, by which individual human beings gain access to the inner worlds of other individuals and to the workings of relationships, and whole ecologies, of which they are but parts. It is also a way through which relationships as entities, including groups, and communities can themselves become aware of themselves as wholes. Often this is accomplished through myth, ritual and other holistic forms of knowing"

"At this point it is possible to consider empathy from outside the modernist discourse and look afresh at this ubiquitous human activity from within a relational frame. From this new vantage point empathy ceases to be seen as the highly skilled instrumental activity of one autonomous individual—the therapist— intervening in the life of another—the client, while themselves remaining separate and unaffected. Instead, empathy becomes understandable as an essential feature of human relational connectedness; an expansion of a person's consciousness to include in the perceptual field the other as an individual, and the relationship with the other of which he or she is a part.

"Empathy, in both egocentric and sociocentric modes, is an essential skill of both therapist and client in this process Egocentric empathy permits the therapist to know the client as a unique whole individual. Sociocentric empathy provides the therapist with ways of knowing the relationships in which their clients participate, including the therapeutic relationship. Relational psychologists may have an even more important contribution to make to the larger culture, by helping society bring into consciousness and develop the necessary skills to effectively deal with higher order relational realities so long ignored by Western cultures."


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