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Difference between Empathy and Compassion

Empathy is the capacity to “share” the feelings of others while compassion is the capacity to not only share feelings but also feel compelled to alleviate their suffering.

The difference between empathy and compassion shows up in emotional reactions, especially when faced with someone in pain. The Harvard Business Review described compassion as something that is “proactive,” as it allows us to contribute to the well-being of others. Compassion serves leaders well as it provides the emotional tools required to effectively mentor others to build stronger teams and a healthy work environment.


Empathetic Distress verses Compassionate Responses

According to Tania Singer and Olga M. Klimecki, exposure to the distress and suffering of others can result in two different emotional reactions: empathic distress and compassionate responses. Empathic distress is based on negative, self-related emotion and is associated with withdrawal and non-social behavior. When experienced chronically, empathic distress most likely gives rise to negative health outcomes. Conversely, responses through compassion are based on positive, other-oriented feelings and the activation of prosocial motivation and behavior.

In a study by Klimecki and Singer, “helping behavior” in a new prosocial game increased in participants who had received short-term compassion training, providing evidence that compassion training leads to increases in prosocial behavior. Empathy does not create prosocial motivation and behavior unless it is transformed into compassion or empathic concern.

Compassion versus Empathy Training Effects the Brain

Klimecki and Singer’s study comparing the effects of compassion training versus empathy training also showed that participants who trained in empathic resonance showed an increased negative reaction in the areas of the brain associated with empathy for pain when shown videos depicting human suffering.

In contrast, those who had compassion training were able to reverse the increase in negative effect and actually amplify self-reports of positive effect. Compassion training also increased activations in a non-overlapping brain network spanning ventral striatum, pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, and medial orbitofrontal cortex. The study concluded that compassion training could provide a new coping strategy to overcome empathic distress and strengthen resilience.

Being Nice is Not Compassion

“Being nice” is more about good manners and adhering to societal rules and norms, than it is about helping others. It is often motivated by the need for other people’s approval and validation as opposed to being attentive to the experience of others. You can be nice without wishing good for others or without motivation to help others.

However, compassion is about being attentive to the experience of others, to wish the best for others, and to sense what will truly serve others according to Joan Halifax, a pioneer of bringing compassion into health care. It is a capacity to feel for someone with a motivation to alleviate their suffering and often involves taking action to help those in need.

As Dr. Thupten Jinpa at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education says, compassion for others frees us from fearing. It gives us strength and greater courage in responding to challenging situations. As such, compassion creates a heightened capacity for leadership in the face of difficulty.

Compassionate Empathy in Leadership

Studies have shown there are three types of empathy, and the type of empathy one experiences plays a key role in its effectiveness for leadership. As well, each activates a different part of the brain that leads to different behavioral outcomes. The three types of empathy identified include:

    1. Cognitive: Knowing and understanding how someone else feels.
    2. Emotional: Experiencing the feelings of another person.
    3. Compassionate: Feeling and understanding what another person is going through and being moved to do something about the situation.

For leaders, cognitive and emotional empathy are not as desirable as compassionate empathy. The first has a level of detachment, while the second can be too overwhelming. Compassionate empathy, on the other hand, is the most constructive form of empathy for leaders. This is because it allows mutuality so one can feel another’s feelings, instead of sympathizing to an extreme that can fog judgment.

Empathy is not Enough

Singer believes it is not so much about empathy as it is about cultivating compassion. Compassion provides a more distanced concern for others, which makes it more effective. Singer is looking at compassion training techniques based on loving-kindness meditation, to teach us how to extend caring feelings to everyone.

Unlike empathy, compassion has fewer limitations and activates a different network of the brain. Because compassion increases prosocial behavior while improving emotional well-being, it is far more effective than empathy, which can generate negative reactions.

To find out more about how mindfulness practices can help you bring compassion into your leadership style, sign up for our free 30-minute consultation to explore your higher potential today.

For other valuable articles on Mindfulness practices, visit our Ultimate Guide to Mindful Leadership.

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