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A guide to empathy and compassion

The difference between empathy and compassion – and why we need both

You’re probably familiar with Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory, but did you know he also authored a “sympathy hypothesis?” He observed that it took sympathy – what we now call compassion – to raise children, create flourishing communities and turn the human race into the civilization we know today.

Empathy and compassion are both integral parts of the human condition, passed down through evolution to help us survive. Observing suffering activates the parts of our brain associated with threat detection and nurturing. It also affects the vagus nerve, which controls the heart and lungs, and the reward centers of the brain. Performing acts of kindness actually give us “hits” of pleasure chemicals.

Yet there is a difference between empathy and compassion, and it’s important to understand, especially for leaders. Knowing the pros and cons of compassion vs. empathy in business can be the difference between creating a productive, trusting team or letting too much slide and experiencing burnout.  

What is empathy?

Empathy means feeling the emotions of another person. It’s not only an awareness of those emotions, but an understanding. It’s a visceral, automatic reaction that happens in both our brains and our bodies – activating certain nerves and causing parasympathetic reactions we aren’t aware of. It’s similar to compassion in this way, but that’s where the comparison of compassion vs. empathy ends.

There are two types of empathy in psychology: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy is the type we just talked about – identifying with another person’s emotions and feeling distress in response. Cognitive empathy means understanding another person’s perspective, attitudes and opinions through knowledge, not emotion. Cognitive empathy is closely related to emotional intelligence and is more of a skill, while emotional empathy is a “gut feeling.”

Both types of empathy are essential for leaders because they help us to connect with others, make better decisions by considering other perspectives and influence others to follow us. That’s great leadership.

difference between empathy and compassion

What is the difference between empathy and compassion?

While there are many differences in compassion vs. empathy, it’s true that empathy nearly always precedes compassion. First, you’ll identify with another person’s feelings and even join in their suffering: that’s empathy. Then, you’ll be spurred to take massive action and do something: that’s compassion.

Both empathy and compassion are emotions, but with compassion, there’s more distance between you and the suffering you’re observing. You’re able to take a step back and ask yourself what you can do to help. Compassion is the ability to be mindful of suffering – without ignoring it or running away, but also without becoming immersed in it. It allows us to take suffering and make it part of our quest for spiritual wellness.

The quick answer to “What is the difference between empathy and compassion?” is this: Empathy is a visceral feeling we often can’t control while compassion is a conscious action. Can you have compassion without empathy? Not really. You may be able to perform acts of kindness, but if you don’t feel them in your soul; it is not true compassion.

Pros and cons of empathy

Talking about compassion vs. empathy isn’t all good or all bad – both are vital to human survival, yet can have downsides if not controlled properly. Empathy helps us relate to others and build the healthy relationships that lead to fulfilling lives. It’s the precursor to compassion, which when enacted has a host of other benefits.

Yet there are issues with empathy. It is not immune to cognitive biases. That is, we are more likely to empathize with others who are like us, and to project our feelings on those who are not like us. Research has found that in areas with extreme conflict, people do not lack empathy – they just have very high empathy for their own group and low empathy for the opposing group. Blindly feeling the emotions of others around us can cloud our judgment and lead to bad decisions.

Empathy can also lead to emotional exhaustion: When you spend so much time feeling the emotions of others, you don’t leave much room for your own. It’s crucial not to stay sad, angry or lonely. When it comes to both empathy and compassion, you must master your emotions, not wallow in them.

Pros and cons of compassion

The main difference between compassion vs. empathy is that compassion requires taking action. This also leads to its main advantages: giving back can help decrease depression and anxiety, lower stress levels and improve confidence and self-esteem among many other benefits.

The disadvantages of empathy and compassion are similar. Too much compassion can lead to what’s known as “compassion fatigue.” It’s commonly seen in helping professions like nursing and in caregivers, and it has real, physical symptoms: anxiety, depression, inability to focus, aggression and a disconnection from reality.

Another disadvantage of compassion is that it is easy to be too compassionate. Because compassion is about doing what is best for someone, it isn’t always easy. When we do what is “nice” instead of what is compassionate, we can enable bad habits, surround ourselves with people who aren’t good for us and inhibit our own personal growth. That can increase suffering instead of relieving it.

Why we need both empathy and compassion

In the debate on compassion vs. empathy, which is more important? The truth is that while we need both, both can hurt us as well as help us. Empathy is a powerful part of being human, but left unchecked, it can turn against us. Compassion is what incites us to do something about the suffering we see, but when we do too much, we forget to take care of ourselves.

Properly balanced, both of these emotions can make you a better leader. Empathy creates rapport and builds trust in the workplace, creating a foundation for a strong team. Compassion allows you to objectively manage the behaviors of your team for the greater good, helping each team member overcome his or her personal obstacles. It gives you the desire to see your team succeed and the ability to act on that desire.

Ultimately, the difference between empathy and compassion is less important than your ability to develop both of these skills in order to lead a more fulfilling life. Are you ready to lead with both empathy and compassion?

Team Tony

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