Empathy: Empathy Versus Compassion

Empathy: the relationship between empathy and compassion. Image credit Jordan Whitt

In this blog from our Neuroleader Academy™ in which we explore insights from neuroscience and how to integrate them into everyday life, we aim to define empathy, and in particular the relationship between empathy and compassion.

This month, Deborah Hulme, founder of Minerva Engagement and The Neuroleader Academy™ in collaboration with the IGD aims to define what we mean by empathy.  In particular, Deborah explores the definition of empathy versus compassion which are often confused.

Apathy is the opposite of empathy: the absence of emotion or lack of caring

Let’s start with apathy, which is essentially the opposite of empathy. Apathy is the absence of emotion or lack of caring, an indifference to social or emotional situations. Whilst we may all experience apathy at certain times, it normally only lasts for short periods.

Prolonged apathy, such as when we start to persistently lack feeling and motivation or alternatively, experience low energy levels over the long-term, is not normal and may be associated with underlying health issues or a mismatch between different brain networks, such as the motivation and reward networks (Dr. Osman Shabir, 2021).

According to the World Health Organisation, optimal health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Long-term apathy is, therefore, not only the opposite of empathy but also falls short of a globally recognised definition of optimal health.

Sympathy is often interchanged with empathy but the two terms have different meanings 

Sympathy is a step closer to empathy, however, it is also fundamentally different. Even though empathy is often used interchangeably with sympathy the two terms have different meanings.

Sympathy is made up of the Greek words “sym”, which means “together”, and “pathos”, which refers to feeling or emotion. However, whilst empathy is said by researcher and author Brené Brown to fuel connection as we internalise the feelings of others, sympathy has the potential to drive disconnection; particularly, if we fall into the trap of showing pity or sorrow for another’s misfortune.

The important difference is that sympathy operates at more of a surface level than empathy, it’s about observation and an acceptance that someone else is experiencing difficulty, whilst at the same time remaining somewhat detached.  In some instances, we can unintentionally shift attention away from the person we are speaking with and back to ourselves, our own experiences and our own feelings which phrases such as ‘Oh I know how you feel’ or ‘yes when that happened to me it was the same’.

Sympathy when applied thoughtfully can be helpful, however, it is different from empathy and, when clumsily applied, can generate more division than connection.

Compassion is often described as the sympathetic awareness of others’ distress, combined with a desire to alleviate it

This brings us to compassion and the minefield of diverse opinion that exists regarding the difference and synergy between compassion and empathy. For transparency it is important to be clear that we don’t have a definitive answer, however, we do have a perspective which we are happy to share with you. You may agree, disagree or use our thoughts to further inform your own. We are not here to tell you how to think, only to provide some input for you to consider and explore as suits you.

Compassion, often described as the sympathetic awareness of others’ distress, combined with a desire to alleviate it, has been a popular topic over the past few years and, certainly from a leadership perspective has been positioned via various articles, blogs and business magazines as an essential skill to develop, moreso than empathy.

Some believe that empathy leads to mental exhaustion as we take on the feelings of others

This due to the belief that empathy, when activated to excess, leads to mental exhaustion and ‘burn-out’ as we take on the feelings of others. It has also been suggested that the nature of empathy means that we tend to be more empathic towards those that are most like us, which can prompt us to be dismissive and cruel to those who are different. This view being fuelled by Canadian Psychologist Paul Bloom and his book; Against Empathy, A Case for Rational Compassion (2016).

Bloom’s conclusions have however, been disputed by neuroscientist Simon Baron Cohen who argues, amongst other things, that Bloom chose to ignore a key word that is included in widely understood definitions of empathy. That word being ‘appropriate’. Empathy is experiencing an appropriate emotion triggered by another person’s emotion.

In Baron Cohen’s work empathy does not mean we exactly mirror what the other person is feeling. As an example, he states that, it would not be appropriate for a doctor to become upset by their patient’s pain, just as it would be inappropriate for a mother to burst into tears when her child falls over and hurts his or her knee. In Baron Cohen’s words, her personal distress could make her child’s distress even greater, so her job as a sensitive, empathic parent is to offer soothing, comforting and appropriate reactions, not to cry when he or she cries.

Highly compassionate people all have one thing in common – they all set clear boundaries

Research professor Brené Brown has dedicated her life to studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. She led a 7-year study on courage and leadership, with the data generating some unexpected results. The most surprising being that highly compassionate people all have one thing in common. They all set clear boundaries. Compassion, often described as the sympathetic awareness of others’ distress, combined with a desire to alleviate it In other words, those who can demonstrate deep compassion are very clear about what is ok for them and what is not ok for them in all aspects of life.  For example;

“it is ok that you are angry with me, but it is not ok that you are screaming in my face”, or

“it’s ok to feel frustrated but it is not ok to sit in this meeting and continue to roll your eyes whilst sighing loudly”.

Not only do highly compassionate people fully respect other people’s boundaries, but they set and consistently uphold their own. Brown argues that compassion without boundaries is not genuine.

To be sustainable, compassionate empathy requires strong self-management skills

This chimes with the third component of empathy, compassionate empathy, as described by Goleman and Ekmon that for compassionate empathy to thrive, strong self-management skills are required.

The importance of boundaries and strong self-management applies just as much at team and organisational level as it does for us as individuals. If we are not clear on what we stand for, if we can’t articulate that to others and respect others’ point of view then it is indeed difficult to maintain compassion over the long term.

Brown’s thinking on empathy is more aligned to that of Baron Cohen than it is to Bloom. Brown believes that empathy is not feeling for someone but feeling with them, that it is infinite and gives back what we put out.

Compassion is a “belief system” about how we are going to treat ourselves and others

Brown argues that compassion needs boundaries, because without them, empathy can be neither sustaining nor infinite. Brown views compassion as a belief system that exists, to varying degrees, within each of us. A belief system about how we are going to treat ourselves and other people.

At an organisational level we might identify this as the deeply embedded values that guide what we do and how we behave.

For us, the position of Baron Cohen and Brown sits better than that of Bloom. Viewing compassion simply, as sympathetic awareness with a desire for action, may encourage us to move forward, and certainly downplays the importance and need for empathy, however, it also has the potential for introducing disconnection and distance.

Whereas viewing compassion as a deeply held belief or value system, incorporating strong, clear boundaries and empathy as the fuel, or in Brown’s language the skillset that brings it to life, provides an easy-to-understand sustainable framework, within which we can work and develop.  For example, we can determine our beliefs about how we wish to treat ourselves and others. We can also consider the boundaries we wish to put in place to protect ourselves from exhaustion or maintain respect for self and others.

Empathy is seen by many as one of our most important natural resources

Positioning empathy as a fuel or skillset that brings compassion to life, highlights the significance and importance of empathy and the need to enhance, cultivate and maintain our empathy skillset.  It brings to life why Baron Cohen and others refer to empathy as one of our most important natural resources. However, in our desire to build our empathy skillset, we must not forget the role and importance of boundaries.

Do we really know what is ok for us and what is not ok for us? Do we respect other people’s boundaries? And if our boundaries are disrespected what do we do? How do we behave?

These are all questions worth reflecting on because when boundaries are not clear or defined then it is possible to find ourselves burnt-out, exhausted and resentful rather than happy, well and thriving.

In summary

In summary then, apathy and sympathy are distinct from compassion and empathy. When considering empathy versus compassion; compassion is described in different ways and, sometimes, as a component of empathy. Recently it has been positioned as preferable to empathy with some considering empathy to have an unhelpful side.

You will no doubt have your own views and it is hoped this blog has stimulated your thoughts.

Deborah Hulme is a practitioner of neuroleadership and the application of neuroscience to improve wellbeing and performance within teams and organisations.  She is a thought-leader and speaker on an international platform.  You can find out more about Minerva Engagement’s Neuroleader Academy™ here, to find out more about what we do and how we might support you and your team then get in touch at engage@minervaengagement.com.

This blog – Empathy: Empathy versus compassion is developed in partnership with the Institute of Grocery Distributors (IGD) and is now available to access as a podcast.  To listen to this podcast and our full Empathy podcast series, click here.  The IGD is an education and training charity for the food and grocery industry undertaking research for the benefit of the public. It develops people working in or looking to join the industry and creates a secure and sustainable public benefit through publicly sharing best practice and other research on the food industry.


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