Empathy & Compassion

This blog post is adapted from Nicole’s book, The Power of Seven Second Chances.

Compassion and Empathy – What Exactly Is The Difference?

Many people often confuse empathy and compassion.  

The truth is, these words have very different meanings, but there is a very strong relationship in leadership.

Empathy should be viewed as a gateway to compassion.

It’s a willingness to understand how someone or a group feels, trying to “walk a mile in their shoes” and then think about how you might feel in a similar situation.  

On the other hand, compassion builds on empathy.

  • Compassion is a consideration of the emotional state.

  • Compassion is acknowledging that it’s their feeling and emotion, refusing to deny it, and with intentionality, acting to alleviate the pain.  


Compassion Should Be Genuine

How many times during the day are you asked, “How are you?”

How many of those people actually stop and seem to listen and care about your response?

Now, tougher question… How many times do you ask that question throughout the day without caring about the person’s response?

This is not genuine compassion.

Authentic compassion is the act of genuinely caring about the feeling, emotional, and mental states of individuals.  

Take our challenge the next time that you ask someone, a stranger or someone with whom you are acquainted, “How are you?” First, take the time to await and acknowledge their true response.

Should such a response be negative or a cry for help, what will you do then? Will you dish out a dose of compassion?  Will you be too busy to pause your day? Do you really have an interest in their response to your question? What if their response is: “I am not doing well, my dog died last night?”  Will you further engage in an expression of sympathy, empathy, or compassion?

Where Does Sympathy Fit In With Compassion & Empathy?

Sympathy is essentially the expression of sorrow for another’s hurt or pain.

The emotional connection between the person expressing sympathy and the person receiving may be miles apart because the person expressing is not experiencing the hurt, pain, or tragedy.  

In leadership, particularly empathetic leadership, we caution against being sympathetic and risking coming off as someone who expresses pity for others.   

Pity is an emotion that tends to dehumanize and belittle, both actions that are contradictory to the expected outcomes of empathetic approaches to leadership.

Expressing pity or sympathy in leadership can appear condescending at times.  

How Is Empathy Different From Sympathy?

Empathy is the willingness of individuals or groups to recognize the emotional state of others.

Unlike sympathy, empathy goes beyond the expression and acknowledgement of someone’s pain and suffering, and puts one in a place whereby you demonstrate the ability to understand for yourself some of the pain that the other person or group may be experiencing.

It is an acknowledgement of our shared experience as humans and recognition that we all feel grief and loss and pain and fear. You do not need to have experienced exactly the same events as the person who is suffering but you do need to have the ability to really imagine how they must be feeling in their situation.

Empathy is a vicarious experience – if your friend or colleague is feeling afraid, you too will recall an experience when you have felt fear in your body; if they are sad, you too can remember a time when you felt sorrow.

Feeling empathy is allowing yourself to become tuned into another person’s emotional experience.  

Compassion & Compassionate Leadership

Compassion and compassionate leadership is the verb-alignment of empathetic leadership or the action approach.  Compassion is the transfer of the feeling of empathy into action that mitigates or alleviates the pain, hurt, challenge, or suffering of the person or group on the receiving end.  

Essentially, compassion is the ability and willingness to stand alongside someone and to put their needs before your own.

According to the Dalai Lama, living a compassionate life can be learned – it is not just something that some ‘extra-good’ people are born with.  

Some have even described compassion in leadership as love in action. Changing habits takes persistence and practice but it is achievable through the right methods.