The Truth about Empathy
Talking about emotion sets leaders on edge. Just do your job! But…
Daniel Goleman discovered that nearly 90% of the difference between average leaders and star performers in senior leadership roles is attributable to emotional intelligence. (HBR)
Empathy and compassion are confusing. But I’m certain they’re important.
5 components of emotional intelligence:
- Self-awareness. Recognize your emotions, as well as their effect on others.
- Self-regulation. Think before acting.
- Motivation. Pursue goals with energy and persistence.
- Empathy. The ability to understand another’s emotional makeup and treat them appropriately.
- Social skill. An ability to find common ground and build rapport.
(Virginia.edu for a more complete chart.)
Empathy understands and identifies with the emotions of another, even if it doesn’t agree. Compassion is the desire to do something about another’s distress or pain. Perhaps an illustration will help.
During a termination process, empathy identifies with another’s pain. Compassion provides a severance package.
“True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved to help relieve it.” Daniel Goleman
It’s useful to see the difference between empathy and compassion. You might not be able to alleviate another’s distress, but you can understand it.
Dictionary.com helps my understanding. “The opposite of compassion is indifference.”
Indifference is easy. Empathy and compassion are messy.
- Empathy is exhausting. Compassion fatigue is real.
- Empathy is a zero-sum game. When you show empathy to one person, you have less for another.
- Empathy can erode ethics. You overlook what you should call-out.
(Empathy – Adam Waytz, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.)
Practice empathy and compassion:
- Be curious about people. Listen to stories.
- Realize the more power you have, the less empathy you tend to show.
- Seek clarification on how others feel. “You seem …. Is that right?”
What do you know about compassion and empathy?
How might leaders practice compassion and empathy?
Not sure that I agree with “Empathy is a zero-sum game”. I agree that compassion is a zero-sum game – you can only give out so much of yourself or your resources. However, you always have the ability to empathize with someone, that well does not go dry.
Thanks Robb. I’m surprised by Alan Waytz’s research. Perhaps there is more to this story. In his article he mentions that showing empathy in one place makes it more difficult to show it in another.
One thing that speaks to me is Empathy is Hard. It takes incredible thought, concentration, and grit.
When being empathic to someone, one does tend to not be empathic towards the cause of the pain. I may be misunderstanding the statement, but I don’t believe there is a limit to empathy as there is to compassion as you describe in your blog. Neither are easy and both take practice.
Ditto that, Robb …
If we look at it in terms of energy, empathy is energy shared (and like joy, doubled … through genuine listening and real curiousity, as Dan says), and
compassion is energy projected/directed/given (and like lust, taken … exhaustable).
Intro v. extro – verts express and practice these things very differently; that’s how it gets to be so fascinating … trying to be selectively compassionate and generally empathetic. 🙂
Hi Dan, It’s good to meet you. You are correct – empathy and compassion can get messy and uncomfortable and make conversations uneasy. I couldn’t agree more. However when it comes to leading, I believe we are much more effective when we connect on a deeper level with others, so as challenging as it may be, it is necessary to demonstrate honest compassion when working with others.
Thanks Madeline. Good to see your comment. Connection requires empathy and compassion. Plus, feeling safe, being willing to take risks, saying what you really think all are facilitated by empathy and compassion. Thanks for jumping in.
I like the differentiation between Empathy and Compassion. It is easier for me to do something (compassion) than to stay with the person (empathy) in the present. Empathy requires that I feel with someone and that is draining. From a leadership perspective, I believe we can empathize but that empathy should not paralyze us into non-action. That’s where compassion comes in.
Thanks Steve. Helpful perspective. Taking action to help seems easier than entering into another’s emotional state. Frankly, I could do both of these things more.
I see leaders looking down on the emotion of others. Sometimes because they judge others through the lens of their own strengths. This is unfortunate. Cheers
Empathy and love tend to empowerment (of all parties);
compassion and “feeling” tend to enablement (of the Other) –
As in all things, balance while still moving forward is a necessity …
That’s why morality and ethics exist: avoiding being manipulated while allowing for being persuaded. IMHO.
Thanks Rurbane. The thing that captures my attention in your comment is “still moving forward.” I can’t tolerate the idea of circling the black hole.
Ditto that, Dan … avoiding the event horizon is key.
NVC (Non Violent Communication, also known as Compassionate Communication) is a practice that includes a number of good practical exercises in this area.
Books, training, practice groups – it’s a movement.
And we’ve seen what enabling Millenials and GenZ has wrought … the statement stands.
We want leaders who have empathy. We want leaders who have compassion.
But, too much compassion isn’t good! You’re forgiven! You’re forgiven!
Too much compassion equals letting people off the hook. Always overlooking performance shortfalls allows people to continue being irresponsible. Not good.
Some leaders think that they are being “nice and kind” by repeatedly showing their compassion. They’re actually hurting people.
Too little compassion! No excuses! No mercy.
Some leaders have no compassion. They have no willingness to listen to any reasons for delays, missed deadlines, and cost overruns.
They often hold a grudge and never let go of past mishaps.
Certainly, there are times when some compassion is appropriate. There are extenuating circumstances. Sometimes people deserve a second chance and maybe even a third chance.
It’s important to consider the key factors in each case. Missing a due date because of a medical emergency is different than a common cold.
What’s the pattern? Does the person act like a victim always blaming others?
The right amount of compassion helps the person retain their self-esteem and hopefully learn from the experience.
Thanks Paul. You got me thinking about the tough side of compassion. Sometimes NOT helping is the best form of help.
Any help that creates dependency isn’t help. The goal of help is to get people to the place where they don’t need help again, in the same way.
Personally, forgiveness is a great challenge. It’s not as simple as it seems. Sometimes there are consequences, even when forgiveness is extended.
Empathy does have it’s limits. Pastors often reach their limit and experience compassion fatigue. I’ve been there. One thing that no one told me is that when in compassion fatigue, it’s harder to care for self too. It’s like you’ve burned the whole forest and now you’re looking for shade.
Thanks Sean. You bring up an important idea. If we hope to extend empathy/compassion we need to receive it. Self-kindness is useful. (It feels a little weird to type that, but I think it’s true.)
Thanks Dan this is very timely for us as I have been doing some thinking and reading around Empathy. I have found Brene Brown’s book, Dare to Lead really interesting and helpful. She defines empathy as “connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience” and it would seem from her research she found that “empathy is infinite and renewable. The more you give, the more we all have”.
I would agree with compassion being exhausting and for both empathy and compassion there is a need for us all to have the support of mentors to promote reflection and self care.
Thank you for your great posts we learn so much from them and often share them amongst our team.
Thanks Ant. Love Brene Brown’s work and her latest, Dare to Lead. Thanks also for bringing the alternate idea … that empathy is infinite.
My reading of Brene’s work suggests she has learned to limit these attributes, but I won’t argue your point.
I think we can increase our capacity for empathy. This idea comes from Goleman’s work. He believes EQ can be learned and developed. The book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is based on the idea that you can learn and improve your empathy.
I wrote about the reality of compassion fatigue in pastores here:
The principles apply to all leadership roles that require empathy or mercy.
Thanks for extending the conversation, Sean.
Also not sure on the empathy zero game part. In emergency services we learn that showing compassion is ok. You are correct empathy is dangerous and exhausting and limits what you have left for others. You have to chose when to use it. Often its is saved for your team or those incidents that hit to close to home. Good post Dan.
Thanks Walt. Some of the research I read deals with the medical profession. You can imagine how taxing empathy can be when you are in a compassion industry.
Saving empathy for team members, family members, and friends may be the only way to give empathy to those who matter most.
In either case, I continue to lean toward the idea that we can PRACTICE empathetic behaviors even if we don’t always get into someone else’s shoes.
Empathy … I view it as seeing something from another’s perspective because you have experienced something similar in your life. Some of your definitions for empathy seems more like sympathy than real empathy. Empathy can be tricky if you are trying to be empathic to others from a different culture. The other culture may have a difference of opinion on empathy … and perhaps deep empathy isn’t really possible with those from other cultures. In a mixed environment with many cultures, empathy ideals common to all cultures, would be the basis of empathy in that environment.
Thanks Michael. You may be noticing the difficulty I find in defining these ideas. I think sympathy includes agreement. YOu feel what someone feels and you agree with their feelings. I don’t think agreement is necessary to be empathetic.
You might feel empathy for a struggling two year old when they’re upset at not getting their own way.
Having said that, there seems to be a blending of terms.
Interesting idea that we can’t show empathy to those in other cultures. Yet, everyone knows what worry, anger, fear, sadness feels like. We might not empathize with the circumstances, but we can understand the emotion. (Just a thought.)
Michael, You touch on something we seem to be missing in the distinction b/t (big E) Empathy and (little c) compassion …
E only happens when we let go of (forgive) our own predisposions and can allow for different perspective
– no judging –
but more appreciation/understanding can be exchanged,
whereas compassion inherently judges first.
Empathy requires an honest two-way exchange (of worldview/thought as well as emotion) for its own sake (self-reinforcing)
whereas compassion has already decided what is just, and what is not (externally reinforced).
This topic is a great one when viewed from an educational perspective. Education from an intellectual point of view is different from education from a holistic view. Looking at the character or Social Emotional side of education changes the spectrum of things. When teaching empathy from an educational perspective, the goal should always be student development. What are the teachable moments? Thus, the five (5) components of emotional intelligence surfaces in the equation. What’s lost in the equation is the big picture. It’s not about self more so than self-awareness, and self-regulation. Empathy as it is described from a big picture or “macro” perspective – causes one to think beyond self. Teaching empathy and learning empathy should always be placed in the perspective of the environment in which one resides. I believe the confusion often lies in the forgotten big picture. Teaching empathy without the governance of the cultural surroundings causes confusion with micro mindedness and macro thinking. I believe Social Emotional Development is the missing ingredient from our educational practices. As Martin Luther King stated:
“…We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”
Social Living requires social intelligence………
Empathy relates to understanding.
Compassion relates to forgiveness.
Now we need to look at the etymology of the terms to make any sense out of this:
Compassion = “suffering with” – letting go/forgiveness is its opposite. This meaning has held since 14c. Think of the passions of Christ.
Empathy is a 20c. term = “feeling in” – if not in actual understanding, at least in appreciation. Think of the divine within (each of us?).
Sympathy = “feeling as” – same as. No distinction between passion and appreciation. “I love you too.”
Dan, thanks for the inspirations to sort some of this through.
I’ve personally found that empathy allows me to better appreciate the “why” behind another persons behaviour. As a leader all we get to observe is the behaviour, and appreciating the why allows us to understand the reasoning behind it from that persons perspective. I believe this allows a leader to truly see a person and this tends to allow better decisions as to how you’ll react to the behaviour and how you anticipate they will react to your reaction.
I don’t believe empathy is a zero-sum game … it takes practice and is often deliberate but is an investment leaders should make to better understand their team.
Compassion then shows in the reaction side. I don’t think it is always forgiveness as some suggest because forgiveness is only appropriate under some behavioural situations. More often I find compassion is having the difficult conversation, allowing the individual to appreciate the behavioural issue, and how it affects others. Owning the problem and then assisting them in facilitating a solution. But, as it often is in leadership, it depends on the situation and what you’re hoping to achieve.
I’ve only recently became aware of Brené Browns work on vulnerability and shame and found it very enlightening.
Burnout / Fatigue called out in the article is REAL. But there are constructs and mechanisms to take care of self as one extends Empathy and Compassion. The more you have for yourself, the more you are able to give. It is supposedly an untapped potential and there is no running out ONCE you figure out how to refill when you are running low. I’m amidst a burnout and fatigue, burnout is one aspect and struggling with health issues that are caused by long duration of stress/trauma are the other aspects. Taking care of self should be priority. Self Empathy and Self Compassion are key to allow extension to others.
Excellent article except for one thing:
“True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved to help relieve it.” Daniel Goleman
It is not possible to feel another’s pain although it is possible to have empathy for them. The pain we feel is our own. If we think we’re feeling another’s pain we are in danger of countertransference and then violating our client’s boundaries. We can’t “fix” anyone and more so it is demeaning.
Empathy and compassion are some qualities that many do not possess. It’s easier for some not to be invest. Additionally, you don’t wholly know everyone’s’ background and what they are currently experiencing at home. Some of my leaders have told me I lead with emotion, but I honestly take pride in that. Who wants to work with unemotional people? I enjoy having a working relationship in which you actually care about your coworkers and their wellbeing. It takes emotion and compassion for that. However, it can cloud your judgment if it’s not used wisely. My first leadership position I will admit that I let my emotions get me too involved in things that were out of my lane. I felt like I had to protect my juniors from being held accountable and experience real-life situations. I took what I thought was failure home as well as other people issues. I learned that people make their own decision and have to live with those and be accountable to learn. In the end, that’s how learn-our own success and failures.
So is having empathy a good thing or a bad thing? It seems you lose your objectivity by having empathy so it may not be useful. Or should there be limits to empthy. Or things you should be aware of while showing empathy. What are some guardrails to set up around empathy?
Compassion is giving others the chance to be themselves, but then encouraging them to be a better version of themselves. A leader can do this when he/she comes close to understand those put under his/her charge.