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Schlesinger, H.J. (1981). The Process of Empathic Response. Psychoanal. Inq., 1:393-416.

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(1981). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 1(3):393-416

The Process of Empathic Response

Herbert J Schlesinger, Ph.D.


In common usage, empathic has several implications. We use the term frequently to characterize an individual of whom we approve. We describe him as an “empathic person.” By this appelation, we usually mean this person has a sensitive regard for his fellow man, likes people, is aware of and accommodates to their needs, is sympathetic with their causes and alert to how they are feeling. The person so described is, in short, a good human being.

In another common usage, we advise our students to “respond empathically to their patients.” By this we mean, first of all, that they should attune themselves to the affective component of the patient's communications and comment upon it in their interventions, in addition to or sometimes rather than the content. We advise the young analyst to focus on how the patient feels about what he is saying, not merely on what he is talking about. When the student has grasped this point of view, we call his affect-focused comments “empathic.”

This last usage is subject to easy corruption. A common vulgarization is to speak of “giving the patient empathy” — to speak


Herbert J. Schlesinger, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychiatry, University of Colorado School of Medicine; Training and Supervising Analyst, Denver Institute for Psychoanalysis; Chief, Psychology Service, Denver Veterans Administration Medical Center; Editor, Psychological Issues, and Consulting Editor, Psychoanalytic Inquiry.

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