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Empathy: The Backbone of Advanced Counseling

The skill of empathy is the backbone of the entire counseling process. There’s no effective counseling without it, which can make a big change, in helping the clients. The importance of empathy is a way of being with another person with his entire perspective of his world of feelings and experiences. That can help the client rediscover his world again and re-appreciate his self and value. This paper will give a psychological history of term empathy and argues about its vital role that plays an essential skill for the counselor in any counseling process.

Etymology and Definitions

The term empathy has a long history from the Greeks and Romans. Its origin is Greek from the word ἐμπάθεια (empatheia) means “passion or suffering.”[1] The part ἐν (en) means “in” and the part πάθος (pathos) means  “passion.” It has the idea of going into a strong emotional connection with the other.[2] As for the word pathos, which turned in English into pathy, which means, emotional perception.[3] The term was first translated into German to Einfühlung before it was translated to empathy into English. It means “Feeling into” who Edward B. Titchener officially translated in 1909 for the first time into English.[4]

            Carl Rogers’s early definition of the term empathy in A.D. 1957 is the understanding and awareness of the inner world of the other. With all its emotional contents and meanings as if the person were the same as the other person, and that the counselor helps the client to explore himself.[5] Rogers defines empathy, “It means entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it. It involves being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person, to the fear or rage or tenderness or confusion or whatever that he or she is experiencing.”[6] Rogers emphasizes that empathy is the feeling of the client’s world as if it were your own, this is essential for the counseling process. To perceive all that the client’s feelings of anger, fear, or confusion as if it were your world but without your emotions being involved in it.[7] “To be with another in this way means that for the time being, you lay aside your views and values to enter another’s world without prejudice.”[8]

            Empathy is the ability to enter the emotions and feelings of the other and to see the counselor’s world as he sees it.[9] A person can step into another’s inner world and get out of it again, without becoming or being this other person. For example, a singer or an actor who excels in his sense of performance and technically empathy the whole experience.[10] Empathy means trying to perceive thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and personal meanings. But from the client’s background and point of view. It’s to do anything, by which, we respond to the other person in a way that makes him feel that everything he says is understandable.[11] Empathy is an ongoing process when the counselor sets aside his way of experiencing and realizing reality, preferring to feel and respond to experiences, awareness, and understanding of the client.[12]

The distinction between Empathy and Sympathy

There’s confusion led to misdirection in counseling about the distinction between the two terms empathy and sympathy. Sympathy means “feeling with” someone, empathy has to do with “feeling in to” someone.[13] The main goal of employing empathy is to express the understanding of a client.[14] whereas the focus of sympathy is a client’s wellbeing in difficult or challenging circumstances.[15] “Empathy emphasizes an active sharing by the counselor of what a client is experiencing while maintaining some level of emotional detachment. In contrast, a counselor’s sympathetic response has the more circumscribed function of expressing compassion for an individual’s distressful condition or situation.”[16] Often sympathy uses support words that do not necessarily reflect the counselor’s empathetic experience or to be in being with the other. It’s like feeling sorry for others’ pain without being with them. For example, when you hear about a specific accident, you feel sad. It is a general feeling, not a special one.[17] The counselor’s responses that are more likely to convey sympathy are: “what a shame” or “oh dear, well never mind”.[18] Empathic responses, on the other hand, directly acknowledge the client’s perspective, for example, “you seem quite upset” or ‘that sounds deeply distressing for you.”[19]

Importance of Empathy

When the client feels that the counselor listens to him carefully and understands him well, this helps him to improve his cognitive self-awareness. Rogers generalizes the importance of empathy not only in the counseling process but also includes all life relationships. Between the teacher and student, husband and wife, A boss and his employees, friends with each other, and so on.[20] Vanaerschot has analyzed the impact of empathy. The client feels valued and accepted as a person, he expresses his feelings into words without shame or embarrassment.[21] The client learning to trust one’s own experience through the affirmation of that experience by the counselor.[22] Empathy focusing the client’s attention on the core aspects of their issue or problem.[23] The client recalls some important incidents of information that may be completely forgotten and play a big role in solving the problem.[24]

Advanced Empathy

            Rogers sees empathy is not only merely statements of empathy to the client, but it’s an entire process. This means the client’s private world becomes the counselor’s home. It makes the counselor sensitive, moment by moment, to all the changes that these meanings flow from the client, so that the counselor feels angry, anxious, confused, or whatever the client feels. This called advanced empathy. It is temporarily meant to live the other person’s life. To move to him, but without judging.[25] Empathy can be employed at different levels or stages. Primary empathy is emotional communication and response to understand the client’s world and learn specifically about his feelings. As for the advanced empathy stage, it is to take the client to a deeper step of self-expression by adding feelings and words that the client uses to express himself.[26] Advanced empathy is closely related to what the client discovers about himself, and the ability to self-understand.[27] The first primary stage of empathy is the ability to respond to the client and to understand his basic issues and problems. It observes all the expressions used by the client. As for the advanced stage of empathy, it is the whole process that helps the client to perceive himself, the problems and feelings to his awareness.[28] Advanced empathy means being aware of the client’s meanings, but not trying to uncover all the unconscious meanings. This includes communicating with the client’s sense of the world as he looks at it, either positively or negatively. This means that the counselor carefully controls his feelings about what the client feels.[29] To be with the client in this way, to put aside all the counselor’s views so that he could enter the client’s world without judgment. In other words, to put yourself aside. Rogers sees that this can only be done by counselors who feel safe from themselves and are not afraid to get lost in the client’s strange world. And that they could at any time return once again to their world when they want to do this.[30] But we do not mean that the counselor is losing himself in the client’s world. Although the counselor is influenced by the client’s feelings of disappointment, he is aware of his hope. When the counselor is hurt because of the client’s pain, he is aware that this pain is not his pain. When the counselor listens to the words of the client’s hatred of his family who offended him, he does not hate the abusers, but his heart and mind is open to what the client says.[31]

Practical Applications

            There are some important factors to consider when studying or applying empathy in any counseling session. First, the counselor needs to learn and practice the necessary empathy skills. Examples of these skills: (1) Understanding and perception. Because the councilor could listen to the client carefully, but not realize his feelings well,[32] (2) Communication. Because understanding and perception without good communication do not help at all.

The councilor should remember the goal of empathy. The goal is to collect the information needed to help the client to understand himself and his problems; not a counselor. Understanding the counselor to himself is not the goal. The goal is to create conditions that make the client be able to understand himself. The councilor should understand that empathy is more difficult, especially when the experience and background of the client are completely different from the counselor’s background.[33]


No miracle could happen to us more than everyone looking at things through the eyes of the other. To listen to what the other listens to. To see what the other sees. To feel what the other feels. To suffer what the other suffers. To be the other, but without losing our identity. This unique skill is called empathy, through which we can encounter the depths of our human weakness and recognize each other’s weaknesses as if it were our own. To go on a deep journey, explore one another’s world as if it were our own. Empathy, when it presents accurately, assures the client that there’s someone who hears him, understands his words, his feelings, and his pain. The empathetic counseling helps the client to explore himself and his problems considering the reflection of his personal experience.


Meier, Augustine. Counselling and Therapy Techniques: Theory and Practice. London: SAGE, 2011.

Wispé, Lauren. The psychology of sympathy. New York: Plenum Press. 2010.

Rogers, Carl R. A Way of Being. Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.

Singh, Kavita. Counselling skills for managers. Delhi: PHI Learning Private Limited, 2015.

Stewart, William. An A-Z of Counselling Theory and Practice. 4th ed. Cheltenham, UK: Nelson Thornes, 2005.

Piirimäe, Eva and Liina Lukas. Herder on Empathy and Sympathy: Einfühlung und Sympathie im Denken Herders. Boston: Brill, 2020.

  1. Clark, Arthur. “Empathy and Sympathy: Therapeutic Distinctions in Counseling.” Journal of Mental Health Counseling 32. No. 2. April 2010: 95–101.

Rozfi Ibrahim, Samuel. Dawabit Wamaharat fi Almashurat Alraewia. vol. 1 “Controls and Skills in the Pastoral Counseling.” 3th ed. Cairo, 2013.  

M Kidd, Jennifer. Understanding Career Counselling: Theory, Research and Practice. London: Sage, 2006.

McLeod, John and Julia McLeod. Counselling Skills: A Practical Guide for Counsellors and Helping Professionals. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Open University Press, 2011.

V.K., Rao and Nayak A.K. Guidance and Career Counselling. New Delhi: APH Pub., 2002.

Tolan, Janet. Skills in Person-centered Counselling & Psychotherapy. London: SAGE, 2010.

Smith, Vicki and Paula Nicolson. Key Concepts In Counselling And Psychotherapy: A Critical A-Z Guide To Theory. New York: Open University Press, 2012.

[1] Augustine Meier, Counselling and Therapy Techniques: Theory and Practice (London: SAGE, 2011), 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lauren Wispé, The psychology of sympathy (New York: Plenum Press. 2010), 78.

[5] Carl R. Rogers, A Way of Being (Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995), 141.

[6] Ibid., 142.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 143.

[9] Kavita Singh, Counselling skills for managers (Delhi: PHI Learning Private Limited, 2015), 77.

[10] William Stewart, An A-Z of Counselling Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Cheltenham, UK: Nelson Thornes, 2005), 108.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Eva Piirimäe and Liina Lukas, Herder on Empathy and Sympathy: Einfühlung und Sympathie im Denken Herders (Boston: Brill, 2020), 2.

[14] Arthur J. Clark, “Empathy and Sympathy: Therapeutic Distinctions in Counseling,” Journal of Mental Health Counseling 32, no. 2 (April 2010): 95–101.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Samuel Rozfi Ibrahim, Dawabit Wamaharat fi Almashurat Alraewia, vol. 1 “Controls and Skills in the Pastoral Counseling,” 3th ed. (Cairo, 2013), 87.

[18] Jennifer M Kidd, Understanding Career Counselling: Theory, Research and Practice (London: Sage, 2006), 55.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rogers, A Way of Being, 159.

[21] John McLeod and Julia McLeod, Counselling Skills: A Practical Guide for Counsellors and Helping Professionals, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Open University Press, 2011), 155.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Rogers, A Way of Being, 141.

[26] Singh, Counselling skills for managers, 77.

[27] Stewart, An A-Z of Counselling Theory and Practice, 108.

[28] Rao V.K. and Nayak A.K, Guidance and Career Counselling (New Delhi: APH Pub., 2002), 132.

[29] Rogers, A Way of Being, 142.

[30] Ibid., 143.

[31] Janet Tolan, Skills in Person-centered Counselling & Psychotherapy (London: SAGE, 2010), 18.

[32] Ibid., 13.

[33] Vicki Smith and Paula Nicolson, Key Concepts In Counselling And Psychotherapy: A Critical A-Z Guide To Theory (New York: Open University Press, 2012), 96.

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