Which is better, empathy or advice?

Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Unhappy, Worried, Problem

The journey of life is filled with challenges, problems, and road blocks that prevent us from achieving our dreams. Because of these problems, some of us will have a hard time navigating our lives and will seek others’ attention and care.

When you’re one of the people who gets approached by a friend with many problems, what do you do? Do you sit down and listen to their woes, or do you go counseling-mode and try to help them? Which is better, empathy or advice?

What is empathy?

Empathy, Compassion, Friendship, Mourning, Pain

Empathy has a lot of definitions in different fields. Empathy, according to the Oxford dictionary, means ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. It is the ability to understand the feelings of other people by putting yourself in their perspective and feeling their emotions as if they are your own.

For Hodges and Myers in the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, Empathy is often defined as understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation: One understands the other person’s experience as if it were being experienced by the self, but without the self actually experiencing it.

Neuroscience also has its own technical definition of the word. According to a recent research paper, empathy is “a multifaceted construct used to account for the capacity to share and understand the thoughts and feelings of others” (Decety & Yoder, 2016). In this paper, the authors classified empathy into two types: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy is all about being aware and feeling other people’s emotions. Cognitive empathy is all about understanding their feelings and putting yourself in their position both intellectually and emotionally.

To make it short and simple, empathy is being sensitive of other people’s feelings and understanding them by putting yourself in their position and perspective.

What is an advice?

Doctor, Drug Therapist, Treatment, Alcoholism, Female

An advice is any guidance or recommendations based on the person’s experience and expertise offered to others with the purpose of improving their situation and solving their problems. Advice is essential when it comes to helping others, especially if they are in need of your expertise about the subject matter.

This is why there are jobs created with the purpose of providing counsel and advice to troubled people. Therapists, psychiatrists, counselors, and advisers are just some of the examples of these kinds of jobs. Being a certified counselor certainly gives you enough credibility and influence for people to approach you and ask for help. But you don’t always have to be certified to give advice. Most people, whenever they’re having problems, go to their parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends to ask for their advice.

However, the problem with this is that they might be subject to bias and personal opinions instead of giving a sound and credible advice. This is because all of us are going through different journeys. Some of our hurdles might be similar to others, but our attitude, environment and mental fortitude certainly varies.

Which is better?

While giving advice is great and helpful, it is not what is always needed. According to Lao Tzu, “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”

The Chinese philosopher said that simplicity, patience, and compassion are all you need in order to help others. You don’t necessarily need to become an adviser or counselor to help out a friend. You just need to be there for them, give them your attention and offer empathy.

Amateur Psychiatrist

When you care about someone, it might be tempting to transform yourself into an amateur psychiatrist. You might think you’re doing them a favor, but in reality, you’re just annoying them. If you feel the need to offer advice, ask for their permission first.

Criticism instead of advice

Let’s say a friend comes to you and ask for your help with regard to their relationship. Your friend keeps getting hurt because their partner is an abusive person who constantly cheats and lies. But despite all of these, they’re still willing to stay and try to work things out.

As their friend, you feel responsible to give help as much as you can. You tell them to break up with their partner and move on. But your partner still insists on staying. You then become frustrated and tell them they’re making the wrong decisions. Because of this, your friend feels invalidated because you’re not putting yourself in their position. Instead of advice, they’re getting criticism which does not help at all.

In this situation, it is best to just show them your empathy. Tell them what they’re going through is difficult and that you’re there for them.

A solution to all their problems

When you’re giving advice to a friend, they might think you know the solution to all their problems, especially if they previously asked for your advice and it worked. While this is a great way of helping, it might become dangerous when the advice will not work. If your advice works, they’ll be happy. But when it doesn’t, they might become more devastated. They might even think they can’t be helped since your advice had no effect.

If your friend asks for advice, make sure to not make any promises. Tell them your advice is subject to your experience and may not work out for everyone.

How to have empathy

Having empathy is a bit difficult since it requires you to put yourself in someone else’s position, especially if that situation is something you have never experienced. But don’t worry, here are some tips on how to practice empathy:

  • Work on listening to people without interrupting
  • Pay attention to body language and other types of nonverbal communication
  • Try to understand people, even when you don’t agree with them
  • Ask people questions to learn more about them and their lives
  • Imagine yourself in another person’s shoes

For more information about these tips, check out Verywellmind’s article about empathy.


May it be giving advice or practicing empathy, both requires immense understanding of the problems of these world and the feelings of other people. This may be difficult to do, but you need to be ready to give out a helping hand. After all, in this world, no man is an island.

Additional Notes

Check out these amazing content about empathy and advice:

10 Tips to Advise Wisely: How to Give Advice That Actually Helps by Maelina Frattaroli

Understanding Empathy: What is it and Why is it Important in Counseling by Joaquín Selva, Bc.S., Psychologist

Why Empathy Can Sometimes Help More Than Advice by James-Gleason

How to Know When to Provide Empathy or Advice and Why It Matters by Erin Pavlina

You might also want to watch this incredible Ted talk about the power of empathy:

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