Effect of Postural Congruence on Clients Perception of Counselor Empathy

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  • 7/30/2019 Effect of Postural Congruence on Clients Perception of Counselor Empathy


    Journal of Counseling Psychology1983, Vol. 30, No. 2,158-163 Copyright 1983 by the Am erican Psychological Association, Inc.0022-0167/83/3002-0158$00.75

    Effect of Postural Congruence onClient's Perception of Counselor EmpathyRichard E. MaurerRoosevelt E ducation C enterOssining, N ew York

    Jeff rey H. TindallRutgers Medical School

    This study investigated the effects of counselor postural cong ruenc e on clientperception of the counse lor's level of em pathy. Specifically, it sought to de-termine whether a counselor who was mirror imaging a congruent arm and legposition of a client would significantly increase th e client's perception of thecounselor's level of empathy over the level of the client's perception when thecounselor did not mirror image congruent arm and leg position. Eighty ado-lescents met indiv idually w ith a counselor for 15 minutes to discuss careerplans. Three varia bles w ere controlled for in this investigation: counselor'sdirect body o rientation, position of counselor's head, and the empathy level ofthe counselor's verba l responses. The dependent variable was the Empathysubscale of the Barrett-Lennard Relationship Inventory. In a 2 X 2 X 2 analy-sis of variance the results were, as predicted, that the clients would rate thecounselor as having a significantly greater level of empathy in the congruentcondition than in the noncongruen t condition. Application to counselortraining and suggestions for further research are discussed.

    There has been a great deal of researchreporting th e effects of certain counselornonverbal behavior on the client's evaluationof the counselor (Haase & Tepper, 1972;Harper, W iens, & M atarazz o, 1978). M ostof this research has measured the effect of aspecific counselor nonverbal behavior on aparticular variable. High levels of counseloreye contact, forw ard body lean, direct bodyorientation (Fretz, 1966), smiling (Bayes,1972), head nodding (G ladstein, 1974), touch(Hubble, Noble, & Robinson, 1981), andcertain arm and leg positions (Smith-Hanen,1977) hav e been d em onstrated to affect theclient's positive evaluation of the counseloron such dimensions as empathy, warmth,genuineness, and expertness.In a review of the counseling researchmethodology, M unley (1974) questions th egeneralizability of the results of many ofthese studies. One chief difficulty rests withthe use of an ana logue methodology. Thismethod employs a brief 10-15-minute vid-eotape of a couns eling session in w hich acounselor maintain s or does not maintain a

    Requests for reprints should be sent to Rich ard E.Maurer, Roosevelt Education Center, Ossining PublicSchools, Admin istration Building, Ossining, N ew York10562.

    specific nonverbal behavior. The client, orin many cases only the viewer, is asked torate the counselor on a specific attribute.Seay and Altekruse (1979) and Fretz, Corn,Tuemmler, and Bellet (1979) have pointedout in a series of studies that the positiveeffects of certain counselor nonverbal be-havior on the client's or viewer's perceptionfound using an analogue methodology do notproduce similar results w hen th e same non-verbal behav ior is manipulated in an actualcounseling setting.

    Several factors have been introduced toexplain the inconsistency of reported em-pirical data on the effects of counselor non-verbal behavior in a naturalistic setting.Young (1980) suggested that the client'soverall perce ption of the counselor and thecounseling process is a factor that influencesratings of a counselor. Experimental effecthas also been introduced (Fretz et al., 1979)to explain the discrepancy. For example, acounselor in a naturalistic counseling settingwho is told to exhibit preoccupied ornonempathetic nonverbal behavior m aycompensate for such nonprofessional be-havior by being overly empathetic verbally.Without control for the verb al condition aswell, the researcher may not be able to con-trol fo r this effect.158

  • 7/30/2019 Effect of Postural Congruence on Clients Perception of Counselor Empathy


    EFFECT OF POSTURAL CONGRUENCE 159It is also possible that there may be otherbehaviors the counselor exhibits that becomeoperative in a naturalistic setting because of

    the nature of the counselor-client interac-tion. These specific nonverbal behaviorscannot be anticipated and possibly confoundthe experimental design. This suggestionhas been given strength by Lee, Hallberg,Hassard, & Haase (1979), w ho have demon-strated the presence of a reciprocal processinvolving nonverbal behavior between theclient and counselor. By delivering a num-ber of verbal reinforcers and nonverbal re-inforcers following each reflection of feelingstatement made by the counselor, the clientw as able to influence the counselor's rate ofreflecting of feeling statements.The importance of the reciprocal non-verbal process between client and counselorhas been demonstrated in the observationalstudies ofCharny (1966), Condon &Ogston(1966) and Scheflen (1964). It was observedin naturalistic counseling settings thatcounselors and clients often maintain pos-tural congruence, that is, arm, leg, and headpositions are in'mirror-imaged positions.Scheflen and Scheflen (1972) define thisposturalcongruence between counselors andclient as an indication of empathy betweenthe individuals. However, because thesestudies are of a descriptive nature, the con-clusion that postural congruence is an indi-cation of clien1>-counselor empathy has to bequestioned. In none of these studies haspostural congruence been analyzed experi-mentally as either an independent or de-pendent variable. Moreover, one study(Trout & Rosenfield, 1980), which usedcounselor postural congruence as an inde-pendent variable, had its results limitedbecause it used an analogue methodology ofonly 40-second video segments of a coun-seling session with the verbal sound trackand the view ofthe participant's head elim-inated.In light of the conflicting data about theeffect of counselor nonverbal behavior in anaturalistic setting on the client's perceptionof the counselor and the lack of an experi-mental study in a naturalistic setting on theeffects of counselor postural congruence,thisstudy sought to investigate the effect ofcounselor postural congruence on the client'sperception of counselor levelof empathy. It

    w as hypothesized that when the counselormaintains a mirror-imaged postural con-gruence with the client, the client wouldperceive the counselor as more empatheticthan he or she woulda counselorwho did notmaintain postural congruence.


    Eighty high school juniors (40 males and 40 females)were randomly selected from a group of volunteers toserve as subjects for this study. All juniors at the se-lected high school were scheduled to receive individualcareer counseling as part of their regular guidanceprogram. For the purpose of this study an announce-ment w as made in all the junior classes requesting vol-unteers who wished to begin their career counselingprogram aspart of a counseling study. Students weretold that the first session wouldbe 15 minutes, but anopportunity fo r further sessions with the counselorwould be available. Th e only qualification was that the

    s student wouldnot have sought the services ofan indi-vidual counselor in the past fo r career-related plan-ning.Each subject was given a number from a list of ran-do m numbers and then ranked according to numberfrom lowest to highest. Each male subject w as pickedin order from the list and assigned to an experimentalcondition starting with Condition 1, then Condition 2,and so forth, until each of the four conditions had 10male subjects. Each female subject wasassigned to acondition in similar manner until each of four conditionshad 10 female subjects. Each condition then w as ran-domly assigned to a male or female counselor. Thosesubjects not assigned to a condition were referred toanother counselor who was not participating in thestudy.Counselors

    The counselors fo r this study were a male and a fe-male in their late thirties certified in NewYork Stateas school psychologists. The male counselor hadcompleted course requirementsfo r a doctorate in psy-- , chology and the female counselor had recently receiveda doctorate in psychology. Both counselors havecounseled adolescents for 8 years.PosturalCongruence

    Scheflen (1964) describes apostural congruent con-dition as one in which tw o individuals face each otheran d hold either their arms, legs, and/or heads in mir-ror-imaged positions. For example, when Person 1raises the right arm, Person 2 will raise the left arm.Procedure

    Each subject met with a counselor on an individualbasis for 15 minutes. The counseling process had as itsgoal to help the client clarify career plans by establishing

  • 7/30/2019 Effect of Postural Congruence on Clients Perception of Counselor Empathy


  • 7/30/2019 Effect of Postural Congruence on Clients Perception of Counselor Empathy


    EFFECT OF POSTURAL CONGRUENCE 161Table 1Means and Standard Deviations of Scores onthe Empathy Scale by Sex of Client and Sex ofCounselor in Congruent and NoncongruentConditions

    ClientCondition Male Female

    Male counselorCongruentMSDNoncongruent




    Female counselorCongruentMSDNoncongruentMSD




    Note, n = 10 for each condition.and in the noncongruent condition was 2.3.The empathy level of the verbal responses ofthe counselors is considered equal duringeach session. The raters agreed 98% of thetime on whether the counselor maintainedpostural congruence in the congruen t con-dition and they agreed 96% of the time onwhether the counselor did not maintainpostural congruence in