Empathy and Buber’s I-thou contact

I do not fully agree with Schmid’s implication that empathy is about “try(ing) to understand, as exactly as possible, the accurate meaning of what goes on inside another person in the very moment”. This is the common understanding of empathy, but it actually contradicts the principle of Buber’s (1970) I-Thou contact. “Trying to un­derstand” is a process of someone doing something with an aim to furnish a need in oneself. In this case, it is the need to understand “as exactly as possible”. If a therapist has this kind of goal, his/her goal may become a blockage to contact because he/she is distracted by the need to interpret and the need to establish his/her identification as therapist in the relationship. 

Wouldn’t this amount to using the client to find-out-something-so-that-I-can-do­my-therapist-job? This kind of objectifying the Other in the relationship leaves room for transference and countertransference neurosis. If empathy is as what is generally under­stood as described above, it is then not part of the I-Thou relationship, because the I­Thou relationship excludes objectification. 

The I-Thou contact requires seeing the Other first, and not seeing the other in re­lation to oneself. This movement towards the other first is what Emmanuel Levinas considers the ethical movement (Schmid, 2001). 

Schmid clarifies this disparity later in the article in stating the difference between Roger’s and Buber’s comprehension of the activity of making empathic contact. Be­sides what is mentioned, Rogers also believes that it is necessary “to put one’s own un-derstanding completely apart” if one wants to enter the world of another person empath­ically. Buber, on the other hand believes in the mutuality of the process. 

That which lies beneath the I-thou contact is not empathy but something more than empathy. Buber (1970) uses the word, Umfassung, a phenomenon of embracing, which is “more than empathy”. This process requires the recognition of 2 poles, in en­countering the other “as a partner in a bipolar situation” (p. 178). This implies a dynam­ic relationship of “swinging into” (einschwingen) into the experience of the other and at the same time maintain one’s own reality of the self. It shows a dynamic process of be­ing existentially affected by the other, and including the other person into one’s own existence (Schmid, 2001). 

This is not the same as to “trying to understand someone as exactly as possible”, or to step into someone’s shoes. It is rather about me being me, seeing you, and show­ing you how you affect me— at this present moment. 

This way of relating in the present moment is what Buber calls, personale Vergegenwärtigung. It is an elementary way of relating and means to expose oneself to the presence of the other. This is a personal way of becoming aware of, a way of ac­ceptance instead of perception, a way of acknowledgment instead of knowledge (Schmid, 2001). 

The I-Thou relationship is basic existential relationship without the complications of identity and needs. The healing power of this relationship is in the confirming of the other for who he/she is. Buber is quoted to use the word Realphantasie, which indicates that what is happening is that “the Other’s reality is touched” (ibid.). What is experi­enced through this form of relationship is the transpersonal, intersubjective acknowl­edgment of the other, affirming the identity of the other through the presence of the self. Both partners in the relationship attains affirmation of the self. This benefit is mutual, and the relationship is symmetric. What happens in this mutual exchange, Staemmler (2009, p. 96) explains is not a “fusion of horizons”—which happens with just empathy alone— but a widening of each other’s horizons in such a way that that it is integrated with each other’s personal background.


Buber, M. (1936). Ich und Du. Berlin: Schocken. 

Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou (Kindle ed.). (W. Kaufman, Trans.) Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Gadamer, H. G. (1975/1960). Truth and method . (G. Barden, & J. Cumming, Trans.) NY: Seabury. 

Schmid, P. F. (2001). Comprehension: the art of not-knowing. Dialogical and ethical perspectives on empathy as dialogue in personal and person-centred relationships. Empathy, 53-71.

Staemmler, F.-M. (2009). The willingness to be uncertain: Preliminary thoughts about intepretation and understanding in Gestalt Therapy. In L. J. Hycner (Ed.), Relational approaches in Gestalt Therapy (pp. 65-110). NY: Gestalt Press.

Notes: The Other as Extended Self vs. I-Thou. Bakhtin and Buber.

The I-position does not limit itself to the internal domain of the self. e.g. I am a piano player, I as a father. We extend our selves into society through (what looks like our roles) “my father”, “my enemy”, “my sister”, which are also I positions…” as the other person has the potential to function in the self as ‘another I’.”

Splitting of the Self

The Cartesian split between the body and self: the body belongs to the self. The Cartesian split between the other and self: the children belongs to the self.

“Thou-Art” : On recognizing the other

The central concept of Bakhtin: ‘For the author the hero is not “he”, and not “I” but a full-valued “thou”, that is another full-fledged “I” ’ (Bakhtin 1973: 51).

“This theoretical ‘upgrading’ of the other as another person in the self implies that the other is considered more than an extension of the Me on the object.  This theoretical ‘upgrading’ of the other as another person in the self implies that the other is considered more than an extension of the Me  on the object level but first of all an extension of I  on the subject level. It allows the other, as part of the self, to develop an original perspective on the world, to tell a story about him- or herself, and to do so as a relatively autonomous position or voice with an own point of view. (p. 21)”

This part rings similar to Martin Buber’s concept of the I-thou relationship. In this I-thou relationship, the other becomes the subject and not merely an extension of the subject. The other is also free to be autonomous. Could this mean that part of the I-thou evolution is to be able to position the other as the hero? Does this correlate to unconditional positive regard?

“Drawing on Buber’s (1923/1958) distinction between the I–Thou and I–It attitude, Cooper proposed that intrapersonal relationships can take one of two forms: an I–I form, in which one I-position encounters and confirms another I-position in its uniqueness and wholeness; and an I–Me form, in which one I-position experiences another I-position in a detached and objectifying way. In his view, a key role for the therapeutic process is to assist clients to become more able to experience moments of an I–I intrapersonal encounter, which requires the therapist to confirm the client both as a whole and in terms of his or her different voices. (p.21)”

The Hero’s Arrival at the Truth

Dostoevsky’s interest is not the hero as an object. The object of interest is the hero’s discourse about himself and the world.  The hero is not objectified. It is about how the hero sees himself and how he sees the world in which he is in.

The hero must ultimately arrive at the truth through clarifying events to himself.

“Dostoevsky’s creative method: the “truth” at which the hero must and indeed ultimately does arrive through clarifying the events to himself, can essentially be for Dostoevsky only the truth of the hero’s own consciousness. It cannot be neutral toward his self-consciousness. In the mouth of another person, a word or a definition identical in content would take on another meaning and tone, and would no longer be the truth. Only in the form of a confessional self-utterance, Dostoevsky maintained, could the final word about a person be given, a word truly adequate to him. (Bakhtin 1984/29 p. 41)


 Source: The dialogical Self in Psychotherapy

Hermans, H. J. (2004). The dialogical: Between exchange and power.

Bakhtin, M. (1984/29). Problems of Dostojevskij’s poetics: Theory and history of literature. (Vol. 8). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.