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  • Writer's pictureStep By Step Counselling College

Beyond The Textbook #3

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the

heart of another.” – Alfred Adler

Empathy is often described as ‘Walking in someone else’s shoes’… a metaphor, that whilst well-

intentioned, falls short. Walking implies a distance, a temporary occupation of another's life. But

true empathy is not a borrowed experience, but a shared space and a bridge built with unwavering

attention and genuine presence. It's not about standing in another’s shoes, but beside them. It is

not about understanding someone’s pain but acknowledging that we hear that pain and are doing

our best to understand it.

In the same way that hairdressers listen but aren’t counsellors, sympathy is not empathy. Sympathy

looks to placate, to comfort. Empathy is feeling what the person is saying and letting go of our own

judgments and anxieties, and stepping fully into the present moment, bathed in the rawness of their

reality. It can be hard, painful, uncomfortable.

Brene Brown, in her poignant TED Talk, beautifully articulates the difference between empathy and

sympathy, highlighting how the latter can sometimes feel like pity, while empathy is a courageous

act of vulnerability, of connecting with another's pain without trying to fix it. Watch a lovely

animated version of her comparison here:

As well as climbing into the dark space with our client, we need to express this, so that the client can

feel that we are with them. This can be achieved through body language or facial expression but is

most powerful when expressed with words.

This nuanced understanding is one of the cornerstones of person-centred therapy, the guiding

philosophy at Step by Step Counselling College. Developed by Carl Rogers, this approach believes

that every individual has the capacity for self-actualisation, for healing and growth and to tap into

this potential, they need a safe space and a mirror that reflects their authentic selves without

judgement or distortion.

Empathy becomes that mirror. It's the gentle echo of their emotions, the whispered validation of

their experiences, the unspoken understanding that they are not alone in their darkness. It's about

communicating this understanding, not just feeling it internally.

So, the next time you encounter someone struggling, remember true empathy is not about advice or

platitudes. It's about holding a space for vulnerability, offering a silent mirror to reflect their inner

truth. It's the delicate art of seeing through another's eyes, feeling with another's heart, and

reflecting that experience back in a way that whispers, & "I (am trying to) understand. You are not


Additional Resources:

The National Counselling and Psychotherapy Society:

Brene Brown' TED Talk: The Power of Vulnerability:

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