Compassion vs. empathy: Understanding the difference

July 16, 2021 - 16 min read

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What is compassion? A definition and examples

Compassion versus empathy: what’s the difference

Why compassion matters

The importance of practicing compassion and empathy

How to become a compassionate leader

Compassion and empathy are no longer vague concepts confined to classrooms, churches, and social work. They’re at the center of the business world. So is the difference between the two: compassion vs. empathy. What might be surprising is how much that difference matters. 

Around 20% of U.S. companies now offer empathy training to their managers and leaders.

According to the same study, the best skills for successful leadership were listening and responding.

As compassion and empathy are hailed as answers to the challenges of modern work, the definitions have blurred. You might wonder, what is compassion? What is the definition of compassion? And how is compassion different from empathy? Many of us use the terms interchangeably, but that’s not correct.

Empathy and compassion stem from the same desire — to better relate and understand others’ experiences. Both are beneficial to individuals and companies. But there’s a nuanced difference between empathy and compassion in everyday life. There’s also a difference between what it means to be an empathetic person versus a compassionate person.

For leadership, understanding that difference and choosing your approach deliberately is critical. It can determine whether you and your team members (and loved ones) will feel positive emotions. The latest research shows that focusing on compassion and mental health leads to strong, sustainable leadership. It also leads to greater self-awareness.

Let’s explore exactly what compassion is with a clear-cut definition, as well as the differences between compassion and empathy. We’ll also address the question of why it is important to practice both compassion and empathy in your own life.

“Wisdom without compassion is ruthlessness and compassion without wisdom is folly.”

Fred Kofman

What is compassion? Definition and examples

According to Psychology Today, “Compassion is an empathic understanding of a person's feelings, accompanied by altruism, or a desire to act on that person's behalf.” Put simply:

Compassion is when you relate to someone’s situation, and you want to help them. You see someone in trouble, and you feel like pitching in.

For example, you might help someone pick up their groceries if they dropped their shopping basket on the floor. Every minor act you choose in your day can help balance out negative emotions.

It’s also different from the basic concept of “kindness” in that the word compassion implies that you see yourself in their shoes.

It’s possible to be kind for practical reasons, without any real empathy for the other’s suffering. But most often, there’s an overlap.

Even Plato conflated the two (or maybe the ancient Greeks just had one word).

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”

 Plato

Compassion is kindness rooted in an appreciation of other human beings as real people who also suffer. It doesn’t have to look like much. You don’t have to sell off all your worldly belongings and become a social worker.

Giving up a seat to a pregnant woman, being polite to retail workers, helping your friend move, taking a second to listen at work — compassion takes many forms. Paying it forward with positive actions over the course of a day can do everything from bringing a smile to someone's face to preventing burnout, even your own.

A compassionate act can be almost anything, provided the motivation is in the right place. Your ultimate goal should be to prevent the suffering of others.

Still, confused about how this is different from empathy? Let’s take a closer look at compassion versus empathy.

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Compassion versus empathy: what’s the difference?

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Compassion and empathy are fundamentally different but closely related. Consider these definitions:

  • Empathy definition: empathy is our feeling of awareness toward other people's emotions and an attempt to understand how they feel.
  • Compassion definition: compassion is an emotional response to empathy or sympathy and creates a desire to help.

Empathy is an understanding of our shared humanity. It’s the ability to see yourself in another person’s shoes. Compassion adds another dimension of a desire to help.

Empathy

Empathy is deeply rooted in our brains and bodies. It evokes in us the desire to understand other people’s emotions. It’s so rudimentary, it’s actually instinctual.

This type of empathy is what psychologists typically refer to as cognitive empathy. There are many reasons to practice empathy, it’s both good for our personal health and our work relationships. 

The problem with empathy is the flip side that psychologists refer to as emotional empathy. That’s our yearning to not only understand other people but to feel their pain, too.

Professor of Psychology at Yale University, Paul Bloom (who authored a book on the topic) writes, “Recent research in neuroscience and psychology (to say nothing of what we can see in our daily lives) shows that empathy makes us biased, tribal, and often cruel.” 

Studies suggest that empathy — while well-intentioned — isn’t neutral. It's even suggested that it can sometimes hurt more than help our relationships and our ability to lead effectively.

Empathy can make us unconsciously more sympathetic towards individuals we relate to more. This makes us less likely to connect with people whose experiences don’t mirror ours.

That’s because empathy comes from a feeling of sameness. Being human is a good starting point. But from there, biases are impossible to avoid. 

A freshman from your “alma mater” feels more connected to you than a random stranger. A natural disaster that displaces people from your home country hits a lot closer to home. It feels more relevant, even if everyone affected is a complete stranger.

Objectively, the distress or suffering is the same, yet the relationship changes your emotional response.

Plus, empathy is unfeasible in the long term. When we’re exhausted and burned out, we’re inevitably less able to give to the teammates who need us most. 

Compassion

So what makes compassion different? Unlike empathy, compassion creates emotional distance from the individual and situation. 

By practicing compassion, we can become more resilient and improve our overall well-being. Bloom says, “careful reasoning mixed with a more distant compassion […] makes the world a better place.”

It’s no wonder that some of the greatest minds in business today are singing, if not a new tune, an evolved one: the tune of compassion. 

In fact, a study from Emory University showed promising results. Medical students (with stressful and challenging work environments) benefited greatly from compassion training. It helps future doctors “stay compassionate toward their patients while maintaining personal well-being.” It also helps in limiting their stress levels.

Compassion creates emotional distance from the individual and the situation we’re facing.

Why compassion matters

Not all human instincts are rooted in goodwill and compassion. We often let other people’s emotions affect us, or even misjudge them based on our own biases. But you have the power to rise above that.

Fred Kofman shared a seminal piece of advice with LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner. He said: “Wisdom without compassion is ruthlessness and compassion without wisdom is folly.” 

The statement had a profound effect on Weiner. He told an audience at Wisdom 2.0 that it led him to create a personal vision statement. His life focus is expanding the world’s collective wisdom through compassion. That’s become the North Star for LinkedIn.

But it’s not always easy. Speaking at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Weiner talked about biases. He says the natural response many people have when they disagree with someone is to get angry and defensive. Even worse, we often “blindly mirror their emotions or assume bad intentions.” Our biases kick in, even when we’re being empathetic.

With compassionate management, a leader can detach herself from her emotions and thoughts. Instead of reacting on autopilot, she can go beyond the feeling and manage an appropriate response.

In a sense, true compassion is about going beyond emotion or rationalization and being kind regardless. It’s not easy, but that’s what makes it especially powerful.

The importance of practicing compassion and empathy

As a leader, both empathetic leadership and compassionate leadership are crucial. They have proven effects on employee happiness, retention, and overall well-being. As a leader, you’ll want to use each effectively.

The world is constantly evolving. In the new workplace, people on your teams are facing more ambiguity in day-to-day tasks. They also feel the pressure to keep up with changes in their personal and professional lives.

Having empathy as a starting point sets the tone for the entire team. You should recognize that everyone is human. Accept that all employees and customers have a life outside work. Remember that they have lives full of concerns and stressors that you don't see.

Practice empathy to unlock new insights into how better to serve customers and peers. This doesn’t involve mindfulness meditation or humming weird tones. You just need to make a point of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Empathy lets the leader model practices such as assuming good intentions and focusing on behaviors and actions. This can avoid unproductive friction and maintain a better team dynamic. It also creates more safety around taking risks.

Practicing compassion at work is crucial. Companies need capable, empowered employees working together to solve problems and identify opportunities. We can empathize with why a team member is struggling, but ultimately we still need performance. 

The action component of compassion is what makes it work. It takes a clear-eyed view of what a team member is doing and where they are falling short and looks for ways to help them get past struggling.

Practicing compassion is an important element to being an effective servant leader. Understanding what your people need to succeed and having the desire to help them succeed is fundamental to service. 

Compassion and self-compassion help leaders create an environment where growth can happen. Research has shown that practicing compassion not only makes the individual happier, it also creates an environment that elevates everyone around them. 

Outside a hospital ward caring for a patient, it can be hard to measure compassion. What questions should you ask your team? How should you approach the changes?

The truth is that it’s about feeling. You should be able to sense a change in the company culture. People should work and interact differently.

It’s contagious — in a good way. A work environment like that helps everyone develop emotional intelligence.

While empathy is “a lynchpin for good leadership, a compassionate work culture, where leaders regularly demonstrate concern for people experiencing difficulties and act upon the concern to help and support is also a key element,” writes Ray Williams in Psychology Today. That’s what Jeff Weiner has already figured out — and so many other leaders are trying to cultivate.

It sounds hard, and it is, but it’s worth it. It can transform your company for the better.

 How to become a compassionate leader

The good news is that you can train and improve both empathy and compassion. Training and exposure are similar in both areas. They increase our awareness of others’ needs, values, and life experiences. 

For compassion, the change starts within. Practices that help us connect more to our own values can increase both our sympathetic concern and our intention to help. 

It starts with yourself. As we further develop our ability to help others, we become more compassionate.

As we practice compassion and see the impact it has on others — team members, peers, family — we become more compassionate in how we think, feel, and act. It’s a positive feedback loop. We become better at helping and serving others, and everyone benefits. 

This effect leads to an environment that’s energizing and generative for everyone. That’s what makes compassion sustainable and sustaining for leaders. 

An empathetic leader can establish a connection with teammates and encourage collaboration. They can even influence staff to be more loyal to an organization. They can even influence staff to be more loyal to an organization. But on the flip side, their own biases might cloud their judgment. Even ethical judgment can become eroded. That’s where compassion comes in.

In fact, research has shown that through coaching in compassion, leaders can “experience psychophysiological effects that restore the body’s natural healing and growth processes, thus enhancing their sustainability.”

The ultimate goal of compassionate management, according to Weiner, is compromise and shared understanding. Emotional leadership can be exhausting, but compassionate leadership doesn’t have to be.

In business, compassion isn’t about becoming a slave to your emotions. It’s about grabbing control of the reins. It’s about overcoming the biases you normally act with.

Through practice, you can become a better boss, coworker, and person.

Most businesses no longer revolve around factories producing the same basic products. 

The days of man-as-machine type of assembly-line labor are over. You need your employees to consistently deliver high-quality emotional and intellectual labor. 

You came here asking yourself, “what is compassion?” Hopefully, you now understand why compassion is a must-have as a leader and an employee. Of course, it takes more than good intentions, or even compassion, to transform your company culture. 

At BetterUp, we love equipping leaders and managers with the tools they need to change their companies. Request a demo today to find out more.

strengthen well-being - coaching for individuals

Published July 16, 2021

Dr. Jacinta Jiménez, PsyD

Vice President, Coach Innovation

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