Compassion vs. Empathy: Knowing the difference

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The year 2020 has left us “doomscrolling,” awaiting the next batch of bad news. As of February 2021, in the United States, almost 460K+ people have died of COVID (2.3M worldwide), economic inequality persists, social injustice continues, consequences of climate change are ever-present, and people are finding new ways to adjust to this “new normal.” From parenting while working at home or decreasing mental health, all while still needing to optimize your employee productivity and business.

It’s normal to feel helpless, given the circumstances of today’s rapidly evolving landscape. Some might call 2020 their worst year, but perhaps, this is instead a moment of opportunity for gaining clarity to make informed decisions. 

What does it take for leaders to step off the plate and move away from choice paralysis? Compassion. 

Let’s dive in.

The Need for Compassion in a VUCA world

We are living in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world. There are plenty of topics that have hit the mainstream discourse today as evidence of that. Gallup found Americans were concerned about COVID-19, poor government leadership, race relations/racism, and the economy. In a recent report, 39% of people felt a lot of worries, 35% felt stress, and 27% reported feeling a lot of sadness the day before. 

What are your initial reactions when reading about current events? Does it make you feel anxious? Numb? Do you find yourself caring more about other people than usual? Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments addressed the need for caring in human nature, which was more powerful than the drive for human self-interest. There is plenty of writing on empathetic leadership. However, it has its limitations especially when the goal is to close the gap between intention and action. It would have been easy to simply say that empathy alone would make positive changes for those around us, but that may not be the case.

What is important to note is the distinction between “empathy” and “compassion.” 

Neuroscientist Tania Singer explained empathy is a precursor to compassion: empathetic reactions can turn into compassionate action (CNS).“Empathy” enables people to connect on an emotional level, but it may not be enough to promote “prosociality”, or actions that may be of benefit to others. Empathically suffering with others does not necessarily motivate people to help them (Decision Neuroscience). The act of caring can also harm health and well-being; in a review on healthcare workers,there was consistent evidence of harmful associations between burnout and empathy.

In comes “compassion.” Yale Psychology Professor Paul Bloom uses the term “rational compassion” in his book Against Empathy, arguing for a “conscious, deliberative reasoning in everyday life” rather than “misguided” acts of kindness. Empirical research found people the word compassion is most often categorized with “love,” “tenderness,” and caring.”

In a 2014 study, Singer and Olga M. Klimecki write, “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern, and care for the other, as well as strong motivation, to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.” 

It’s human nature to care, but to try to feel what everyone else is feeling at all times is not conducive to rational decision making. To feel does not lead to doing. Your intent and feelings are not enough; listening, understanding, then taking action is more impactful than acting on emotions alone.

During a Wharton graduation, LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner said, “The empathetic response would be to feel the same sense of crushing suffocation, thus rendering you helpless. The compassionate response would be to recognize that that person is in pain and doing everything within your power to remove the boulder and alleviate their suffering. Put another way, compassion is empathy plus action.”

Closing The Gap Between Intention And Impact

Gut feelings are biased. Personal feelings sometimes unconsciously translate into professional decision making. Adam Waytz, a psychologist and professor of Northwestern’s Kellogg School, wrote, “Empathy for those within one’s immediate circle can conflict with justice for all…Empathy toward insiders—say, people on our teams or in our organizations—can limit our capacity to empathize with people outside our immediate circles.”

Primatologist Frans de Waal writes in the evolutionary sense, we more readily identify with and are protective of those who seem closest to them familially; unconscious bias or “intergroup empathy bias” regarding race, gender, ethnicity, or politics apply.

A response to empathy may lead to immediate emotional-fueled action such as using a hashtag, re-Tweeting an image, putting a black box on your Instagram page, or following other trends. However, these forms of pat-yourself-on-the-back performative allyship are temporary band-aid solutions to larger issues. Leaders must move away from self-serving action and toward truly considering others in their decisions.

Empathy can also cause “empathy distress,” defined as “a strong aversive self-oriented response to the suffering of others, accompanied by the desire to withdraw from a situation to protect oneself from excessive negative feelings.” (CVMA) Meanwhile, compassion uses the emotions fueling empathy in a sustainable manner that does not fatigue emotionally or physically. 

Where can you start? You can apply compassion to combating racial or social injustice to climate change, which means the framework of business and organizing the workplace through the lens of compassion. Naz Beheshti wrote in Forbes, “Business leaders can and must be part of the solution and acknowledge how they may also be part of the problem.” It means a mindful awareness recognizing one’s immediate emotional bias, taking a step back to educate yourself about an issue as best you can, then using your new knowledge as a tool for effective leadership. As a leader, you set the culture and behavior of the organization.

Intention alone does not always lead to a substantial impact. In recognizing inequity and the deeper systemic issues in the world, leaders can apply compassionate systems thinking (MIT J-WEL) through connecting to issues, caring about them, and caring about the people impacted by them. It also takes self-compassion to take responsibility for addressing difficult conversations or topics head-on.

Stanford suggests applying self-compassion and self-awareness include: taking it personally (not suppressing emotions); sitting uncomfortably with vulnerability; knowing it’s okay to mess up sometimes; rewriting negative scripts about yourself, and focusing on the reality of what’s happening instead of jumping into panic mode. Don’t let FOFU stop you from making important, difficult decisions. The task isn’t easy, but as Kyanna Wheeler of the Race and Social Justice Initiative said, “Start where you are and do what you can do.” Work internally before working externally, remembering it requires a growth mindset and will take time.

Author: Trisha Hautéa, Senior Research Analyst at Kindred

Editor: Racquel Joseph, Chief Experience Officer at Kindred

Trisha Hautéa

Published on February 09, 2021