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.

References

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.