Conversation Analysis of Empathy in Psychotherapy Process Research (CEMPP)

Research Associates: Marie-Luise Alder, Michael M. Dittmann and Florian Dreyer
Financed by: Köhler Foundation and the IPA (International Psychoanalytical Association)

2014–2017 / Project Heads: Prof. Dr. Dr. M. B. Buchholz, Prof. Dr. Dr. H. Kächele

Project Description

Despite the differences in the schools of therapy, the concept of empathy on the part of the therapists is described in a similar manner, with its achievement being regarded as decisive for successful therapeutic work. It is however astounding that even with the high regard that empathy has, there have been hardly any empirical studies to date on achieving empathy in a therapeutic process. And this is where the research project is set to commence and focus on.

Empathy has to present itself in the therapeutic "conversation" (Freud), and that not solely in words, but there as well. Empathy is a "conversational co-production", i.e. it is achieved by both interlocutors in a shared process. And this process can be described in sequences (so-called communicative turns). What interests us is

  • how do they tailor their utterances to each other (recipient design),
  • how do they create a shared space of comprehension (common ground),
  • how do both of them expand this into a zone of trust,
  • which typical difficult situations (TDS) are overcome doing so,
  • which misunderstandings are resolved communicatively, and
  • how are sensitive subjects structured communicatively between them.

In addition to the conversation analysis studies, the prosody at selected places is also subject to a separate study. It is known from infant and toddler research among others how the attachment figure or psychological parent and the child relate to each other in a language melodic (i.e. prosodic) manner, and that doing do, a steady cycle of "repairs" occurs, which have also been described in the study of therapeutic dialogues as rupture-repair cycles (RRC). And it is exactly in this respect that the tone is set, as all clinicians know – and Finnish writers with whom we have exchanges have presented some interesting initial findings here.

With this project, we also intend to pursue a further aim. The debates and arguments between the differing therapy method schools usually occur on the level of conceptual exchanges and blows; we intend to study whether the three schools named also make a distinction when handling typical difficult situations (TDS), etc. in terms of the dimensions named – the rupture-repair cycles, the establishment of common ground and the articulation formats of the recipient design.

Data Set

Sound recordings of psychotherapeutic sessions in the Munich Psychotherapy Study (Prof. Dr. Dr. Dorothea Huber) serve as the data set. They are carefully transcribed (based on the GAT conversation analysis transcription system) and undergo a conversation analysis process.

The psychotherapy recordings cover the three therapy procedures approved by the statutory German health insurance companies:

  • Analytical psychotherapy (AP) with a frequency of two to three session per week, lying down;
  • Depth psychology-based psychotherapy (DP) with one session per week, sitting;
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) with one session per week.

We have selected five therapies from each of the three therapy methods. From these five therapies, one hour at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end are to be transcribed in each case. This corresponds to a data volume of 45 therapy hours. The transcriptions occur in accordance with the GAT conversation analysis transcription system.


Cooperative work with the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Research on Intersubjectivity (Prof. Dr. Anssi Peräkylä) at Helsinki University has already begun. Prof. Dr. Jörg Bergmann, the former Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Bielefeld, is acting as an external consultant. Prof. Dr. Uli Reich, a linguist at the Free University Berlin has stated his commitment to work on the project.

Anyone interested in writing a Bachelor or Master thesis or even conducting doctoral work on sub-themes in the project should please contact us. We are more than happy to discuss potential themes with you.

Publications on the Project Subject

  • Alder, M.-L.; Brakemeier, E.-L.; Dittmann, M.M.; Dreyer, F.; Buchholz, M.B. (2016). Fehlleistungen als Empathie-Chance–die Gegenläufigkeit von „Projekten“ der Patientin und der Therapeutin. Psychotherapie Forum. Vol. 21. No. 1. Springer Vienna, 2016.
  • Alder, M-L & Buchholz, M.B. (2016), Kommunikative Gewalt in der Psychotherapie, in: Sylvia Bonacchi (Hg.), Linguistische Untersuchungen zur Gewalt, Berlin, de Gruyter.
  • Buchholz, M. B. (2014). Patterns of empathy as embodied practice in clinical conversation - a musical dimension. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00349
  • Buchholz, M. B., & Alder, M.-L. (2015). Communicative Violence in Psychotherapy. Language and Psychoanalysis, 4(2), 4–33.
  • Buchholz, M. B., & Gödde, G. (2013). Balance, Rhythmus, Resonanz: Auf dem Weg zu einer Komplementarität zwischen "vertikaler" und "resonanter" Dimension des Unbewussten. Psyche - Z Psychoanal, 67(9/10), 844–880.
  • Buchholz, M. B., & Kächele, H. (2013). Conversation Analysis - A Powerful Tool for Psychoanalytic Practice and Psychotherapy Research. Language and Psychoanalysis, 2(2), 4–30.
  • Buchholz, M. B. & Kächele, H. (2015). Emergency SMS-based intervention in chronic suicidality: a research project using conversation analysis. In J. S. Scharff (Ed.), Library of Technology and Mental Health. Psychoanalysis Online 2. Impact on Development, Training and Therapy (pp. 145–161). Boston: Karnac.
  • Buchholz, M. B., & Kächele, H. (2015, July). Conversational Aspects of the Unconscious - Project-related Empathy. Data from a Short-Term Therapy with an Obsessive-Compulsive Patient. International Psychoanalytic Association, Boston, Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association.
  • Buchholz, M. B., & Reich, U. (2014). Dancing Insight - How Psychotherapists Use Change of Positioning in Order to Complement Splitt-off Areas of Experience. In F. Orsucci (Ed.), Psychotherapy as a Complex Dynamical System - The New Meta Model. London.
  • Buchholz, M. B., & Reich, U. (2015). Tanz der Einsicht - Linguistische Einblicke in ein therapeutisches Gespräch. Journal für Psychologie, 23(2), 11–51.
  • Buchholz, M. B., Spiekermann, J., & Kächele, H. (2015). Rhythm and Blues - Amalie's 152nd session. From Psychoanalysis to Conversation and Metaphor Analysis - and back again. Int. J. Psychoanal., 96(3), 877–910.