Compassion or Empathy? Which one is better?

As a leader, parent, educator, or any individual responsible for empowering, guiding, and inspiring others, your ability to understand, connect with, and support them is crucial.

If you have ever picked up a leadership book on how to enhance these skills, it is likely that you have been encouraged to be more empathetic and compassionate, with the latter gaining more traction in recent years.

Empathy, in particular, has long been recognised as a crucial quality for effective leadership. Its roots can be traced back to early works in psychology and social sciences, such as Carl Rogers’ concept of empathic understanding and the field of emotional intelligence. Stephen Covey popularised empathy in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” and Daniel Goleman solidified its significance by revealing it as one of the core components of emotional intelligence.

Compassion on the other hand, has only recently started to gain recognition and prominence in boardrooms, open-plan offices, classrooms, and some educational environments. Notable works such as “Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organisations” by Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, and Simon Sinek’s “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t” have propelled compassion as a key attribute of leadership, contributing to its rise and growing momentum.

And like all new concepts that materialise there will be some who get onboard with it and some that don’t. Last month thought leader, Adam Grant shared a post on social media claiming that compassion was kinder and healthier than empathy and it consequently caused quite a bit of debate, especially from those in the empathy camp.

So, this week I wanted to unpack empathy and compassion some more in the hope of giving you more clarity about these two essential qualities that are critical to your ability to lead and influence others well.

While often referred to synonymously, empathy and compassion do possess distinct qualities. Here are their differences:

Empathy involves understanding and sharing the feelings of others. It allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and experience their emotions and perspectives.

On the other hand, compassion is a response to empathy. It manifests as a considerate concern and care for the well-being of others, particularly when they are suffering or in need.

Empathy centres on connecting with and acknowledging the emotions someone is going through. It primarily involves understanding and sharing the experiences and feelings of others. Conversely, compassion goes beyond understanding and emphasises taking action to alleviate suffering or provide support. It is a proactive response that seeks to make a positive difference in someone’s life.

Empathy is primarily an emotional response. It involves feeling and sharing the emotions of others, often without necessarily taking tangible action. Compassion, while rooted in empathy, is action oriented. It goes beyond empathy by recognising someone’s suffering and actively engaging in acts of kindness, assistance, or support to alleviate that suffering.

Empathy can be more objective and neutral, allowing us to understand and experience the emotions of others without necessarily taking a personal stance or getting deeply involved beyond the emotional level. In contrast, compassion requires a sense of connection and genuine concern for the well-being of others. It often involves an emotional investment and a willingness to help or make a positive impact.

Empathy can be directed towards a wide range of emotions or experiences, encompassing both positive and negative feelings. It can be applied to joy, sadness, fear, and various other emotions. Compassion, however, specifically focuses on recognising and responding to suffering, pain, or adversity. It is oriented towards providing comfort, support, or assistance in challenging situations.

My belief is that neither empathy nor compassion is inherently better than the other. They serve different roles and have unique strengths and applications in various situations. Let’s consider the value of each in the context of these things:

Understanding and Connection: Empathy is crucial for understanding and connecting with others on an emotional level. By stepping into someone else’s shoes, perceiving their perspective, and validating their experiences, empathy helps create a sense of shared humanity. It fosters deeper connections between individuals and promotes empathy as a fundamental aspect of human interaction. As a leader, empathy will enable you to establish deeper connections with your team, fostering trust, respect and collaboration.

Action and Alleviation: Compassion is essential for taking action and providing support to those who are suffering or in need. It compels us to help others, alleviate their pain, and make a positive impact. Compassion motivates acts of kindness, turns empathy into action, and drives our commitment to making a difference. It empowers us to translate empathetic feelings into practical support and care. As a leader, compassion will inspire you to prioritise the well-being of your team members and invest in their individual growth and development, leading to higher morale, engagement, and overall satisfaction.

When you embody both empathy and compassion, you create a culture of care—a place where people feel psychologically safe to bring their whole selves to work, to the classroom, and to their personal lives. It becomes an environment where individuals believe they will be seen, heard, and understood, allowing them to thrive.

Additionally, many companies and leaders strive to attract and retain top talent and having leaders that express both empathy and compassion is a strategy that will likely see this come to fruition.

So, if Adam Grant, ever decides to pop over and have a cuppa with me, I think I will tell him that both are invaluable and integrating the two, might be a better option than playing one off against the other!

If you would like to learn HOW to integrate compassion and empathy into your leadership and culture even more, please reach out. I would LOVE to help!

Just email me or book in a time for a discovery call.