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. 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 realise 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 does 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 empathy definition describes it as the ability to identify with the pain, feeling, and experience of others around us. It goes beyond feeling bad for their condition as is the case with sympathy. It involves putting oneself in the perspective of the person experiencing a form of 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 the feeling of empathy.

It simply wants to know, “how are you feeling?” and relate with the person from the place of that 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 to feel the difficulty of others and seek ways to make things easier for them.

According to the APA compassion definition, it’s a strong feeling of relating to a person’s sorrow or distress, while having a natural desire to comfort or help. It doesn’t just feel empathy, it goes the 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.

compassion vs empathy

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

Let’s explore the difference 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, it sometimes goes 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 with an employee based on what they know. This may include relaxing deadlines or even understanding with them on 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 administer the organization. Take 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 in dealing with this situation because, in the end, the organization is losing out 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 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 energised 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 burnt out.

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

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Empathy can be an important catalyst for change

As simple as it seems, empathy can drive a lot of changes where it was non-existent. 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 action 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 organisation. 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 to build a high level of trust lacking between employees and employers because they feel seen and prioritised.

An organisation with empathy at the core of its operation will enjoy far more employee loyalty than those who don’t. Additionally, empathy can help to uncover grey areas underlying employees’ overall job performance. This supplies the organisation with the insights required to make policy changes that help to 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 pain even if you’ve never met them or don’t even know what they look like.

Various problems can stem from empathy when emotions are involved. It could lead to assumptions and making decisions based on how you feel about a situation rather than based 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 a bias of trying to solve a problem because they ‘feel’ an individual needs it more or because they’re seeing 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 empathising with needs it more.

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

Compassion is key to helping others. Unfortunately, you can’t feel compassion toward 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 people you don’t like.

As a leader, you might want to address any biases you have towards any employee, to be able to express compassion towards them effectively. It’s important to know that showing compassion to people within your organisation is even more of a win for you. A recent study has proven that employees are likely to work longer in an organisation where empathy and compassion are prioritised. Additionally, it creates a ripple effect of productivity on the job. Employees are likely to remain resilient against stress and burnout—which helps them to 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 you-problem. On the other hand, if the employee is the issue, recommending them for personalised 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 to ‘feel’. However, this is different from compassion as 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 compassionate. As a leader, always think about ways your influence and position can help to 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 difference it could make for that person and go ahead to do it. In the end, it wouldn’t just be about them, you’ll also be doing good for yourself too. There are so many benefits to being an empathetic and compassionate 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 peace and enjoy giving your best to the work. Ideally, if you ever need any form of support—which we all do—you always know you’ve built a community of people who’s got your back.

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Final words…

It’s important to create an environment 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.

Samuel Olawole
Samuel Olawole is a freelance copywriter and content writer who specialises 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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