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The Difference Between Compassion and Empathy

Andrew Langat
August 8, 2021
An executive coach explaining the difference between compassion and empathy.
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Covid-19 led to seismic shifts in nearly all facets of our everyday life, including the workplace. Deeply rooted practices were removed, and the work environment was redefined. Many companies rushed to adjust to the "new normal" amid anxiety about the future, generating negative emotions at work and home.

For many leaders, this required emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and the need to understand the difference between compassion vs. empathy.

This was a steep learning curve, especially in the absence of prior leadership coaching, mentoring, executive coaching, or compassion training on key management issues covering the need to understand a person's feelings, how to be an empathetic person, and why empathy and compassion are essential in management.

A quote by Ophrah Winfrey.

One of the lessons that leaders can pick from this epidemic is that compassion and empathy are two essential elements of good leadership. The notion that displaying emotion denotes weakness is no longer applicable in the modern workplace. When employees know their leader has genuine compassion, it is easier to share their emotional pain with the full knowledge that they have a listening ear.

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What's the Difference between Compassion and Empathy?

Compassion vs. empathy is often used in the same sentence and is closely related, but there is a marked difference. For starters, both are emotions. The main difference is that empathy precedes compassion because you need to have experienced empathy to have compassion.

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What is Empathy? Definition and Examples

Empathy is the capacity to experience what another person feels emotional, see things from their perspective, and put yourself in their shoes. Essentially, it involves placing yourself in another person's shoes and experiencing their feelings.

Empathy is not unique to human beings. Evidence shows that other animals do show empathy as a natural response.

Examples of empathy include: showing interest, being supportive, sharing how you feel, showing interest in your team members' personal lives, etc.

What are the Three Types of Empathy?

According to Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, empathy manifests in three ways: compassionate empathy, emotional empathy, and cognitive empathy.

Compassionate Empathy: arises from a deep understanding of other people's feelings and moving to help if needed. This emotion concerns the "whole person" and is concerned with intellect, action, and emotion.

Emotional Empathy: Daniel Goleman describes it as “when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.” This emotion is concerned with physical sensations and feelings.

Cognitive Empathy: Also known as "perspective-taking." It is the ability to understand and then predict the feelings of others by placing oneself in their shoes. This feeling is concerned with the thought process, intellect, and understanding.

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How to Practice Empathy in Leadership

Leadership is all about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people to inspire and empower their lives - Ophrah Winfrey.

Empathy is one of the fundamentals of leadership. Some leaders have termed it the number one leadership skill. Others refer to it as the most important leadership skill.

For effective leadership, a leader must understand and exercise empathy in various forms.

Here is how to Foster Empathetic Leadership:

1. Showing sincere interest: by showing genuine interest in the hopes, needs, and dreams of other people, you get to build trust and confidence. Team members who feel that the management care about empathy and compassion for their needs better respond to delegated tasks and are willing to go beyond the call of duty.

2. Demonstrate a willingness to help: empathetic leadership demonstrates a desire to help when a need arises, such as personal loss. When team members learn that they are in a work environment that offers a shoulder to lean on, it boosts morale.

3. Be open to different perspectives: hearing different perspectives makes everyone feel acknowledged. This creates a safe space where people can freely share their opinions without feeling victimized.

4. Have an open-door policy: the door to the management team is open to every employee to encourage open communication, feedback, or discussion. This builds trust and a sense of belonging and can create room for employees who want to manage up.

5. Watch out for any sign of burnout & mitigate: According to Mayo Clinic, possible causes of burnout include a lack of control, unclear job expectations, work-life imbalance, and extremes of activity, among others. This can lead to sadness, fatigue, excess stress, and health conditions such as high blood pressure. Encouraging initiatives such as self-care and wellness programs go a long way in promoting empathy.

6. Learn to sit down and listen: Deliberate active listening goes a long way in building better relationships. Sit down, offer full attention, and ask questions for better clarity during such a moment.

7. Follow-through: following through on what has been discussed completes the equation. It brings reliability and trust and boosts morale.

8. Foster meaningful relationships: the cornerstone of a meaningful relationship is true compassion, mutual respect, kindness, and intentionality, among others. When this is practiced, it offers emotional room for greater self-awareness.

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What is Compassion? Definition and Examples

The Association of Psychological science defines compassion as “the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help."

Compassion includes kindness, motivating others, active listening, noticing emotional distance between team members, trying to find out why, etc.

What are the Four Types of Compassion?

The four types of companions are categorized based on intentions, actions, feelings, and concerns.

Empathic compassion: feeling the emotions felt by a person's suffering

Action compassion: concentrating on actions aimed at relieving emotional and physical pain

Concerned compassion: A concern for a person experiencing suffering with a desire to alleviate suffering

Aspirational compassion: intentional or aspirational concern that is more cognitive than emotional.

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How to Practice Compassion in leadership

 "A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent." - General Douglas MacArthur.

In a graduation speech at Wharton, Jeff Weiner, the former CEO of LinkedIn, explained why compassion Builds better companies. He says, "Managing compassionately is not just a better way to build a team; it’s a better way to build a company.”

In the book, Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations, the authors Monica C. Worline and Jane E. Dutton state that "compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities."

The bottom line is that if your organization needs to thrive, management needs to ingrain practicing compassion as a core element of leadership. There is evidence that this will result in a competitive advantage.

As a leader, you will be required to perform acts of compassion.

Here is how to foster compassionate leadership:

1.   Take a moment to learn about your team: Learning your team should go beyond checking their resume or small talk over coffee, taking time to understand more about your team members' backgrounds, essential milestones such as birthdays, hobbies, struggles, etc.

2.   Walk the talk: A compassionate leader walks the talk, i.e., actively inspiring your team members and genuinely caring for their well-being.

3.   Show gratitude: there are many ways of showing Gratitude, but ultimately, positive results should be reinforced through Gratitude. When team members know that their results matter, it fosters motivation to deliver more.

4.   Learn about compassion: compassion can be taught. If this is an area you feel you need improvement in, never shy away from enrolling in an executive coaching program that will make you a compassionate leader

5. Learn to listen: the importance of listening plays a significant role in affirming compassionate leadership. When team members learn that you provide a listening ear, it enriches the work culture and enhances openness.

6.   Show that you genuinely care: As you receive feedback from your team members, deliver feedback that shows you genuinely care. For example, invest in training and development, introduce a culture of wellness, extend paid leaves when necessary, etc.

7. Encourage a culture of cooperation: Encourage collaboration over competition. Science supports this and shows compassionate leadership as it eliminates adversarial relationships among team members.

8. Watch out for Compassion fatigue: One of the dark sides of caring for others is being overwhelmed. When this occurs, it becomes challenging to offer compassionate acts. One of the tell-tale signs of this is neglecting your own self-care. To avoid such, take a break from the stressful situation.

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Which is Better: Compassion or Empathy?

Compassion is better than empathy. This is because the former is deliberate, while the latter is impulsive. Moreover, empathy occurs immediately and can leave an individual drained.

One important distinction is that with compassion, there is a deliberate action of alleviating other people's suffering.

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How Highrise Can Help

At Highrise, we understand the challenges of the modern workplace and why compassionate and empathetic leadership matters more than ever in dealing with other people's emotions.

Through tailored executive coaching on the difference between empathy and compassion, we can create a solution that works to maximize your potential and ensure that you live a meaningful life in your workplace.

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Andrew Langat
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Andrew Langat is an experienced content specialist in Leadership, Productivity, Education, Fintech, and Research. He is an avid reader and loves swimming as a hobby. He believes that quality content should be actionable and helpful.