A therapist’s capacity to empathize and relate to a patient’s emotional state is one of many core skills needed to provide in-depth psychological care. Some of these skills can be learned during training, while others may be reared in other areas of the therapist’s life. Listening, mutual respect, allyship, and other aspects of empathy might seem intrinsic to the therapeutic relationship, but some practitioners struggle more than others to cultivate these qualities within the clinical context.
Dr. Shannon McIntyre, Assistant Professor in the PsyD in Clinical Psychology program in New England, provides a theoretical framework for the “empathetic dialectic” in her recent study, “Promoting an Empathic Dialectic for Therapeutic Change: An Integrative Review,” published just last month in the Journal of Contemporary Psychology.
She and her co-author describe the “empathetic dialectic” as “a therapists’ capacity to emotionally resonate with patients’ internal states, such as during ruptures, and to coregulate their own and the patients’ states through mentalization.” The article is the most recent paper in a series that aims to investigate therapeutic empathy, relational psychology, social neuroscience, rupture-repair, and attachment literature.
“Dr. McIntyre and her colleague begin to put language to the felt experience in the consulting room between the therapist and patient,” said Dr. Vince Pignatiello, PsyD Program Chair. “They functionally address the nuance of the foundational components of therapy and technical standards necessary within the profession. This is an important piece regardless of one’s theoretical orientation or stage of training.”
Initially, Dr. McIntyre’s research investigated the impact of stigmatization on identity formation in women, but more recently she has analyzed the role of empathy within the therapeutic context. Her recent paper identifies that therapists’ characteristics and self-awareness may facilitate or inhibit a patient’s treatment. The paper grew out of the theoretical basis for Dr. McIntyre’s dissertation, completed in January 2017, exhibiting the influence and evolutionary potential of PhD candidates’ dissertations within the field.
Drawing on her review of 28 articles, Dr. McIntyre sought to identify research that supports the empathetic dialectic’s existence and its effect on training and supervision. She found that therapist’s subjective empathy and levels of security critically impacted their ability to attend to their own mental state, and that of their patients. This proves to be particularly true when stress levels are high, as they have been these last 18 months during the pandemic. The therapist’s security in the empathetic dialectic, and capacity to resonate with the patient’s internal state, is therefore crucial to clinical competency.
Dr. McIntyre’s attention toward the therapeutic relationship emphasizes the quality of connection and understanding between therapist and patient, as one of the most critical factors in mental healthcare. The goal of her continuing research is to further identify factors that facilitate or inhibit the empathic dialectic, and she and her co-author suggest that future research should continue to conduct studies on therapists’ attachment, attunement to their patient’s mental state, coregulation, and rupture resolution.