Compassion vs Empathy: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

CoachHub · 30 November 2022 · 8 min read

We often find people talking about the need to be compassionate and show empathy toward others. As a result, it’s easy to assume that both words mean the same. The truth is, while both terms seem to be similar, they mean different things, and that difference can significantly influence how things turn out.

Leaders must step up to realize the importance of both concepts in dealing with employees within their organization. Even more important is the need to understand both concepts and when it’s appropriate to apply them.

In this guide, we answer “what do compassion and empathy mean?” Compassion vs empathy—the key differences and the significance of both to organizational operations.

What is empathy? Empathy asks, “How are you feeling?”

A common definition of empathy describes it as the ability to identify with the pain, feelings, and experiences of others around us. It goes beyond feeling bad for their condition, as is the case with sympathy. It involves putting oneself in the shoes of the person experiencing difficulty.

In defining empathy, the APA dictionary describes it as an understanding of another person’s frame of reference in terms of their feelings, thoughts and perception. It further explains that the motivation to assist another individual often doesn’t come with a feeling of empathy.

It simply wants to know, “How are you feeling?” and relate to the person from that place of understanding.

What is compassion? Compassion asks, “What do you need?”

When you think of compassion, a mental image of someone showing kindness to others and helping them in their predicament comes to mind. Compassion is simply put, the ability of human beings to feel the difficulty of others and seek ways to make things easier for them.

According to the APA definition of compassion, it’s a strong feeling of relating to another person’s suffering, sorrow, or distress while having a natural desire to comfort or help. It doesn’t just feel empathy; it goes the extra mile by taking into context ways to help an individual with what they need to get better. Compassion focuses on ways to improve a person’s current situation based on an understanding of the problem.

Empathy is a reaction to another person’s pain, but compassion takes it one step further

Let’s explore the differences between compassion and empathy further. Usually, we come across employees whose lives are driven by various circumstances. The challenge is that these circumstances do not just affect their personal lives; they sometimes go on to affect their professional lives as well.

In dealing with these dynamics, empathy and compassion are equally important. However, the difference is that, in taking an empathetic approach, a leader may only relate to an employee based on their emotional intelligence and what they know. This may include relaxing deadlines or even understanding their poor performance or late delivery on a project. While this may be good, the reactionary mode of empathy may not be the best approach to successfully administering the organization. For instance, if 8/10 employees are dealing with situations in their personal lives that affect their work performance, Empathy is not the best approach to dealing with this situation because, in the end, the organization is losing heavily due to the employee’s low output.

Compassion, on the other hand, goes beyond understanding the situation to seeking ways to help them figure out ways to solve the problem. Compassionate leaders often look closely at an employee’s challenge and seek to deal with it by asking them how they want to be helped. That singular act of support from compassionate leadership could be all that the employee needs to overcome that challenge. Compassion could involve recommending a break for an employee experiencing burnout. Ideally, it’s a better way to deal with the situation since the employee is likely to return feeling more refreshed and energized to do their work. It’s also an easier way to avoid mistakes and all the other issues that could arise from continuing to work until you’re burned out.

If there’s anything to keep in mind when dealing with empathy vs compassion, it would be that, while empathy stops at relating to another person’s emotions and challenges, compassion seeks to find logical ways to deal with them.

compassion vs empathy

Empathy can be an important catalyst for change

As simple as it seems, empathy can drive a lot of change where it was nonexistent. Think of how you felt when someone genuinely looked you in the face and asked if you were doing great. That moment must have meant a lot to you and felt different from the mindless ‘how are you?’ that people throw around in greeting.

This little act of cognitive empathy can change how you view and relate to that individual on a large scale. Similarly, empathy can drive changes in the employee-employer relationship that are critical to the advancement of the organization. When employees perceive that leaders are leading with empathy and show concern about their overall well-being and the dynamics surrounding their personal lives and output on the job, they can feel safer. Empathy can help build a high level of trust between employees and employers because they feel seen and prioritized.

An organization with empathy at the core of its operation will enjoy far more employee loyalty than one that doesn’t. Additionally, empathy can help uncover gray areas underlying employees’ overall job performance. This supplies the organization with the insights required to make policy changes that help enhance employee performance and well-being.

You can feel empathy for strangers

One interesting fact about empathy is that it gives you a sense of connection to the individual, even if they’re strangers. This happens when a leader emotionally connects with a subject while feeling the kind of pain they go through. So that’s to say that emotions can make you feel connected to another person’s feelings and pain, even if you’ve never met them or don’t even know what they look like.

Various problems can stem from empathy when negative emotions are involved. It could lead to making assumptions and decisions based on how you feel about a situation rather than on the true reality of the situation.

It’s important to be able to measure the ideals in a situation and step back from it emotionally to be able to make quality decisions about it. Empathy can put a leader under the bias of trying to solve a problem because they ‘feel’ an individual needs it more or because they’re seeing it from the person’s perspective. Unfortunately, this is not an objective approach because it’s exhausting to try to see from everyone’s perspective. Moreso, it’s possible to miss out on an opportunity to help someone just because we feel the person we’re empathizing with needs it more.

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It’s difficult to feel compassion for people you don’t like

Compassion is key to helping others. Unfortunately, you can’t feel compassion for them if you don’t like them. This is because compassion requires a strong commitment to see a person through their challenge, and there’s no way you’re going to commit to practicing compassion for people you don’t like.

As a leader, you might want to address any biases you have towards any employee and be able to express compassion towards them effectively. It’s important to know that showing compassion to people within your organization is even more of a win for you. A recent study has proven that employees are likely to work longer in an organization where empathy and compassion are prioritized. Additionally, it seems that practicing compassion has a ripple effect on productivity on the job. Employees are likely to remain resilient against stress and burnout—which helps them achieve more—when they work in a compassionate environment.

This means that you would need to work out any differences you have with any individual or employee if you struggle with liking them as a leader. Moreso, you can work with a coach to help you manage your working relationships if it’s a personal problem. On the other hand, if the employee is the issue, recommending them for personalized coaching sessions might be a compassionate way to respond to the situation.

Compassion is about action

When you think of empathy, it doesn’t necessarily require you to do anything other than “feel”. However, emotional empathy is different from compassion in that it requires you to act on the information you have. It propels you to do more than ‘understand’, but move on to ‘feel’ and do something about what you’ve ‘felt’.

Whenever you find yourself in a position to help others, know that the actual process of going out of your way to make their predicament better is what makes you a compassionate person. As a leader, always think about ways your influence and position can help improve other people’s lives, needs and experiences in general.

Compassion is about wanting something good for others—and yourself

There’s no limit to how much you can do for others. No matter how little it is, always consider how much of a difference it could make for that person and go ahead to do it. In the end, it won’t just be about them; you’ll also be doing good for yourself. There are so many benefits to being a compassionate and empathetic person.

People are likely to equally like and trust you; they’ll also have a great perception of you. This also gives you a sense of comfort knowing that you’re making meaningful contributions to the lives and experiences of others. Ultimately, when the people around you have a better quality of life, it creates a ripple effect for you too—you can have a sense of self-awareness and peace and enjoy giving your best to the work. Ideally, if you ever need any form of support—which we all do—you’ll always know you’ve built a community of people who’ve got your back.

Final words…

It’s important to create an environment in everyday life where empathy and compassion thrive, and it’s also helpful to understand the difference between both concepts. If you ever feel that you or anyone around you is struggling with developing either of these vital skills, don’t hesitate to seek the help of a coach.

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Samuel Olawole
Samuel Olawole is a freelance copywriter and content writer who specializes in creating exciting content across a wide range of topics and industries. When he’s not writing, you can find him traveling or listening to good music.

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