Empathy and compassion: What’s the difference and why does it matter?

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Empathy and compassion are crucial skills for leaders, but it’s important to be clear that they are not the same thing.

As I’ve been researching more around the topics over the last few years, I’ve found many examples of the two things being confused, of demands being made on leaders to be more empathetic, when actually what people are looking for is more compassion.

It’s something that first grabbed my interest on the back of the pandemic, when there was a lot of discussion about leaders needing to be more empathetic. Lots of articles were written about how it was a core trait that leaders needed to possess, with a shift away from some of the more traditional views on how a leader should behave.

But something about throwing the word empathy around didn’t sit that well with me… I think because the pressure on leaders is already huge, and was only intensified by the pandemic, it felt like yet another thing to put on a group of people who were already feeling somewhat isolated and unsupported.  

So, in this blog, I want to explore what we really mean when it comes to empathy, how it differs from things like compassion, and why it is needed.

What is empathy? Why is it important?

Empathetic communication is important for building better relationships with people. It helps us to remember that our concerns are not the same as everyone else’s concerns.  

Empathy can deepen friendships, create new ones and improves the quality of everyday life. It’s also been suggested that it’s a collective force that can shift social and political landscapes.   

There are two types of empathy: cognitive and affective empathy.

Cognitive empathy, is about looking at things from different perspectives and understanding another person’s emotions.

Affective empathy, often called experience sharing, is your own emotional alignment with another person’s experience.  

Cognitive empathy is the combination of compassion and empathy, and is the most effective approach to meaningful connection.  

Compassion is not just a feeling, it includes action and it’s about shared humanity.  Compassion is a daily practice. Empathy is a skill set that is part of compassion.  

Empathy is not walking in someone else’s shoes. It’s about truly listening to them, listening to their experiences and truly believing them even though it might not be something you have experienced.   

It’s how we make true connections and it’s important for reducing friction among teams, making remote work work, and so many of the other challenges facing organisations today.

There’s more great information on this in the book Poles Apart by Alison Goldsworthy, Laura Osbourne and Alexandra Chesterfield which talks about how people are pulled apart and how you can bring them back together.  

Reflecting back on the demands for leaders to be more compassionate during the pandemic, I’ve reached the conclusion that what people actually wanted to see was compassion. They wanted the daily practice and the action.  

Where the chaos happens 

Showing compassion and empathy as a leader needs to be done in the right way, otherwise it can lead to chaos.

Things can start to go wrong when:

  • We confuse sympathy with empathy and focus on feeling sorry for others 
  • We judge the other person 
  • We attempt to minimise their experience 
  • We compare their experience with something else, something better or worse 
  • We try to fix things before understanding the emotion 
  • We don’t make time to listen and understand 
  • We say one thing and behave in a way that suggests the opposite intention 
  • We lack boundaries  

The six habits of highly empathetic people 

 

Working on the basis that empathy is a practical skill, that is part of compassion, there are several things you can do to help develop that skill.

In the book Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It, Roman Krznaric outlines the six habits of highly empathetic people.

Habit one – Switch on your empathetic brain: Shifting our mental frameworks to recognise that empathy is at the core of human nature and that it can be expanded – it’s something we can all build.  

Habit two – Make the imaginative leap: Making a conscious effort to understand others’ experiences, including our enemies, to acknowledge their humanity, individuality and perspectives.  

Habit three – Seek experiential adventures: Exploring lives in cultures that contrast with our own through direct immersion, empathetic journeying and social cooperation.  

Habit four – Practice the craft of conversation: Fostering curiosity about strangers and learning the art of listening 

Habit five – Travel in your arm chair:  Transporting ourselves into other people’s minds with the help of art, literature, film and online social networks works for growing our empathic abilities.   

Habit six – Inspire a revolution: Generating empathy on a mass scale to create social change and extending our empathy skills to embrace the natural world.

The book also talks about four simple steps you can take to communicate with compassion:

  • Practice compassion as a daily skill and do things that demonstrate action – that’s what teams and employees need to see. 
  • Learn to listen without judgement. This is one of the first areas of focus in Mental Health First Aid courses, and it’s something to start doing now.
  • Be aware this isn’t just for leaders. In a world where we use technology to communicate more than ever, the risk of dehumanising others is rising. We all need to have moments of self-reflection to see what we could be doing differently. 

  • Make sure your intentions are clear. We judge others by their behaviours and we judge ourselves by our intent. We don’t know the intentions of others, all we see are actions. So, if there is a gap, make sure those around you understand why you’re doing things. 

You can listen to the full discussion around this on this episode of Redefining Communications podcast with Jenni Field.

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Subscribe to join our community and we’ll be in touch with helpful advice and updates about how we can take your organisation from chaos to calm. Our community gets invited to a quarterly 90-minute Ask Me Anything online session with Jenni Field, as well as early access to events, discounts and research.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.