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GuidesEmployee experienceCompassion vs empathy: Understanding the key differences

Compassion vs empathy: Understanding the key differences

Last updated

16 December 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Warren Jonas ACC

Compassion and empathy are essential qualities that help us connect with others and understand their perspectives. These qualities are vital in building meaningful relationships, fostering a sense of community, and promoting social cohesion.

According to Harvard Business Review, 20% of companies incorporate empathy training in their leadership programs. They recognize how important it is for creating a healthy and productive work culture.

Read on to learn more about the power of compassion and empathy, how they differ, and how you can cultivate them in your personal and professional lives.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share other people’s feelings. It goes beyond sympathy or feeling sorry for someone. Empathy requires active listening and being present with others rather than simply trying to fix or solve their problems.

How to practice empathy

Empathy is a skill you can develop and practice. Here are some ways to cultivate and practice empathy in your everyday life:

  • Active listening: pay attention to what others say and try to understand their perspective. Don’t interrupt or judge them. Pay attention to their tone, facial expression, and body language.

  • Put yourself in their shoes: try to comprehend other people’s feelings and perspectives. It can be helpful to imagine how you would feel in their situation.

  • Observe body language: nonverbal cues can often reveal a person’s emotions and help you better understand their perspective.

  • Ask open-ended questions: instead of assuming you know the full story, ask open-ended questions to encourage others to share more about their experiences and feelings.

  • Validate emotions: let others know that you hear and acknowledge their feelings, even if you don’t fully understand them.

  • Take the time to talk: try to set aside some time to actually talk to others so that they feel listened to.

What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?

While sympathy refers to recognizing or feeling sorry for someone’s pain or struggles, empathy goes further. It involves actually putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and experiencing their emotions.

In simple terms, sympathy is more passive, while empathy requires active engagement.

What is compassion?

Compassion is a powerful emotion that involves feeling concern for others, but it goes further than empathy. Compassion is an actionable quality, as it requires taking action to alleviate the suffering of others.

At its core, compassion is about showing kindness toward others—even those who don’t deserve it. It involves understanding and accepting the other person’s struggles and offering support without judgment.

How to practice compassion

Here are some ways to practice compassion at work or home:

  • Volunteer: find opportunities to give back and help those in need within your community.

  • Show kindness: small acts of kindness can go a long way in making someone’s day better.

  • Practice forgiveness: forgiving others can help you let go of negative feelings and foster compassion toward them. It’s a good idea to start by treating yourself with kindness and showing yourself forgiveness.

  • Listen with an open mind: when listening to others, try to put aside your own biases and judgments and truly listen to what they say. Ensure your friends, family, and colleagues know they have an open line of communication with you. At work, the environment should encourage employees to be honest and feel comfortable sharing their feelings and concerns without judgment.

What’s the difference between sympathy and compassion?

Compassion involves actively expressing care and concern for someone. It suggests you are willing to connect with the person and support them while they are feeling pain.

In contrast, sympathy involves emotional distancing. When you express sympathy, you are saying you feel sorry that the person is experiencing pain. You don’t necessarily relate to it, since you are not experiencing the same emotions. You are merely recognizing them.

For example, consider the following situation: a friend shares that they lost a loved one.

  • Sympathy: you understand your friend is grieving, and you recognize their emotions—but you don’t share their pain.

  • Compassion: you recognize and share your friend’s emotions and offer support to help them through their grieving process.

Compassion vs empathy: Understanding the differences

Similarities between compassion and empathy

Compassion and empathy are similar in many ways.

Understanding and relating to another person’s emotions

Both compassion and empathy involve the ability to understand and relate to other people’s emotions. When you feel compassion for someone, you feel an emotional response to their suffering and are motivated to help them. Similarly, empathy involves seeing things from their perspective and understanding what they are going through.

Being present and actively engaged with others

Compassion and empathy require you to be present and actively engaged with others. To express compassion, you’ll need to be fully attuned to someone else’s needs and respond with kindness. Meanwhile, showing empathy involves actively listening to the person’s experiences without judgment or interruption.

Concern for others

Compassion and empathy involve building a connection with another person and showing concern for them. Feeling compassion toward someone involves acknowledging their pain and offering your emotional support. Empathy also involves tapping into the shared human experience and recognizing that everyone goes through struggles in life.

Positive relationships and sense of community

Compassion and empathy promote positive relationships and help you foster a sense of community. Showing others kindness, understanding, and support creates a nurturing environment where people feel valued and cared for. This leads to healthier and more fulfilling connections with those around you.

The importance of empathy and compassion

Having compassion and empathy for others has many benefits, both for the person receiving it and the person giving it. Here are some ways that empathy and compassion can positively impact your life:

Better understanding

When you empathize with someone, you gain a deeper understanding of their perspective and experiences. This can be helpful in the workplace. When employees have a good understanding of each other’s ideas and views, it fosters communication and innovation.

Stronger connections

Empathy and compassion help you form stronger emotional bonds with others by showing them you care about their feelings and experiences. Your relationships may get stronger as a result.

Improved problem-solving

When you truly understand what someone is going through, you are better equipped to offer support and help find solutions to their problems. Without compassion and empathy, problems may get swept under the carpet. In the workplace, this can lead to communication breakdowns and a toxic work environment that harms productivity and employee satisfaction. 

Increased compassion and kindness

Compassion allows you to see beyond your own experiences and recognize the struggles that others may be facing. You’ll feel good about helping others through tough times, and you may enjoy stronger friendships as a result. Other people may show you compassion and kindness in return when you are going through a hard time.

Personal growth

Practicing empathy can lead to personal growth by helping you become a more understanding, patient, and open-minded individual. These qualities can help you navigate everyday life and relationships. They can also help you thrive at work.

Summing up

Compassion and empathy are often used interchangeably, but they are two distinct concepts that play important roles in your life.

Compassion is the desire to alleviate someone’s suffering, while empathy is the ability to understand and share their emotions. Both are valuable traits that can improve personal and professional relationships, growth, and problem-solving skills.

By actively practicing empathy, you can cultivate stronger connections with others, become more compassionate and kind, and continue to grow on a personal level. So, the next time you encounter someone who is struggling, remember to not only show compassion but also practice empathy. It won’t just be them you’re helping.

FAQs

Can you have empathy without compassion?

Empathy is typically the precursor to compassion. Before you decide to step in and help another person cope with whatever they are struggling with, you need to understand and identify with their emotions.

Your empathy may not always develop into compassionate actions. For example, you might empathize with a new employee in your office who is struggling to get to grips with the work—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make an effort to help them.

Why can it sometimes feel hard to have empathy?

Everyone has different experiences of life and emotions. Empathy comes more naturally to some people than others, but it’s a skill you can develop over time.

The following are just some of the signs you might lack empathy:

  • Feeling that other people are overly sensitive

  • Feeling confused about other people’s feelings

  • Having difficulty forgiving other people for making mistakes

  • Thinking nothing bad will ever happen to you

  • Finding it difficult to cope with emotionally charged situations

  • Victim blaming

Your life experiences influence how empathetic you are. These include your upbringing, teachers, parents, and culture. Certain conditions can make it challenging for people to have empathy, including borderline personality disorder (BDD), narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and antisocial personality disorder. Genetics are also thought to play a role.

Just because you struggle with empathy now doesn’t mean you can’t learn to be empathetic. Observing other people and considering how you would feel in their shoes, actively listening to others, and working on your communication skills can help you develop empathy. 

Can too much empathy be harmful?

Empathy is an incredible trait to have. It can provide so many benefits to you and others and help you grow as a person. However, too much empathy can do more harm than good.

When you spend a lot of time thinking about other people’s pain, you may forget to look after your own mental health and happiness. After a while, you might become numb or apathetic, where you feel no concern for other people’s emotions or struggles.

Emotional regulation—the ability to control your emotional state—can help you cope with your own emotions while still having empathy for others. It typically involves rethinking difficult situations to focus on positivity, reducing sadness, anxiety, and hopelessness.

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