Empathic reflections by themselves are not effective : meta-analysis and qualitative synthesis

Elliott, Robert and Bohart, Arthur and Larson, Dale and Muntigl, Peter and Smoliak, Olga (2023) Empathic reflections by themselves are not effective : meta-analysis and qualitative synthesis. Psychotherapy Research, 33 (7). pp. 957-973. ISSN 1050-3307 (https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2023.2218981)

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Objective: We present a mixed methods systematic review of the effectiveness of therapist empathic reflections, which have been adopted by a range of approaches to communicate an understanding of client communications and experiences. Methods: We begin with definitions and subtypes of empathic reflection, drawing on relevant research and theory, including conversation analysis. We distinguish between empathic reflections, reviewed here, and the relational quality of empathy (reviewed in previous meta-analyses). We look at how empathic reflections are assessed and present examples of successful and unsuccessful empathic reflections, also providing a framework of the different criteria used to assess their effectiveness (e.g., association with session or treatment outcome, or client next-turn good process). Results: In our meta-analysis of 43 samples, we found virtually no relation between presence/absence of empathic reflection and effectiveness, both overall and separately within-session, post-session and post-treatment. Although not statistically significant, we did find weak support for reflections of change talk and summary reflections. Conclusions: We argue for research looking more carefully at the quality of empathy sequences in which empathic reflections are ideally calibrated in response to empathic opportunities offered by clients and sensitively adjusted in response to client confirmation/disconfirmation. We conclude with training implications and recommended therapeutic practices.


Elliott, Robert ORCID logoORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3527-3397, Bohart, Arthur, Larson, Dale, Muntigl, Peter and Smoliak, Olga;