The concept of empathy has been starting to raise interest in organizations. Companies acknowledge that empathy is an important skill to look for in their recruitment. Schools are trying to teach our kids how to be more empathetic. However, we’d like to argue that empathy only is not enough – we need empathy in action. We need compassion.


What empathy actually is?

For many people, empathy and compassion mean one and the same thing. According to research, the issue is not that simple and the distinction might actually be quite crucial [1].

Empathy means the ability to put yourself in other person’s shoes. It is understanding and experiencing what another person is feeling. For example, if we notice that someone is scared, empathy makes us feel scared, too. If we see someone crying, we feel like crying, too. Understanding and relating might be a good start for sure, but does it really help another person if you are feeling their feelings? Does empathy always lead to other-centered behavior?


Possible downsides of empathy

We asked compassion researcher Miia Paakkanen what she thinks about the relation between empathy and compassion. “This is something I always mention in my trainings”, Paakkanen laughs. She agrees that the concepts are easily mixed and people often use the terms as synonyms.

“Compassion stands out in a way that it includes the authentic goodwill and willingness to act for the benefit of another person or the greater good.”

As often people see only the positive sides on empathy, Paakkanen reminds that in theory, it could be possible to use empathy for harmful purposes, as well. Empathy means the ability to see yourself in other person’s position and feel what they are feeling. What could be a more powerful tool if you really wanted to hurt someone?

Empathically skillful people are the ones who would also know what hurts the most – and only relating to other person’s feelings, without authentic goodwill, wouldn’t necessarily prevent someone from using empathy for wrong purposes. Secondly, it is important to distinguish what kind of empathy is more likely to lead to prosocial behaviour, Paakkanen continues. Too much affective empathy – feeling with others – could cause distress and thus lead us to withdraw from prosocial actions, or it could even cause compassion fatigue, she says. What kind of empathy then is more likely to lead to prosocial behaviour?

The distinction between empathy and compassion

When noticing other person’s suffering, two possible reactions occur: distress or concern. Empathic distress, feeling another person’s pain is a self-related emotion. It results in negative feelings and in the long run, it can cause even health problems. When you are taking another person’s suffering to yourself, it doesn’t feel good. Empathic concern instead is other-oriented state and it causes prosocial motivation and positive feelings. We also know empathic concern as compassion. Compassion is not feeling with someone; it is feeling for someone. [2]

One research team tested this distinction and they noticed interesting results: when people felt personal distress when facing other person’s suffering, it didn’t lead to altruistic helping behavior. On the other hand, when they felt other-oriented concern, it did. Therefore, feeling another person’s pain, feeling empathy, is not a guarantee for kind behavior towards others. Feeling empathic concern, compassion, is a better predictor. [3]

Definition of compassion  

Imagine yourself feeling a bit down and you are opening up to your friend about your worries. How would it feel if the person only answered by telling that they also feel down? Would you feel different if they tried to comfort you by hugging and showing understanding instead of just conforming to your emotional state?

This example demonstrates the difference between empathy and compassion. In empathy, a person is relating to another person’s emotional state. In compassion, a person is acting, because of another person’s emotional state.

Compassion starts in a similar way to empathy. First, we notice another person’s suffering and second, we empathically feel that person’s pain. But the next step is the one that really distincts compassion from empathy: in compassion, after noticing and relating to another person’s feeling, we act in a manner intended to ease suffering [4]. Basically, one could say that compassion is empathy in action, active empathy. Compassion is showing people around you that you have seen them and you care for them.

Compassion doesn’t have to be supporting only in hardships. Paakkanen and her research team from Finland define compassion as a broader concept by arguing that it can be also recognizing another person’s positive emotional states as joy, pride, or excitement and sharing that positive feeling. This form of compassion is called co-passion.

Creating more compassion

Hopefully you are now a bit more convinced that empathy is not enough and we need active empathy instead. Where should one start then?

As an expert of compassion, we asked Paakkanen what would be her top tip for someone who wants to increase compassion in teams. She considers her answer for a while: “Are people allowed to be compassionate? Is it something, in which people really can use their working hours, something that is appreciated and praised? Is a leader leading by example and giving a chance for compassion?”

If the culture of the team is not supporting people to be kind and show compassion, it is difficult for people to start doing so. We may be good at noticing and experiencing the feelings of people around us but what really matters is taking an action. If we want more compassionate communities, we have to start by creating opportunities to ask and receive compassion.

[1] Bloom, P. (2016). Empathy and its discontents. Trends in cognitive sciences.

[2] Singer, T., & Klimecki, O. M. (2014). Empathy and compassion. Current Biology, 24(18), R875-R878.

[3] FeldmanHall, O., Dalgleish, T., Evans, D., & Mobbs, D. (2015). Empathic concern drives costly altruism. Neuroimage, 105, 347-356.

[4] Lilius, J. M., Worline, M. C., Maitlis, S., Kanov, J., Dutton, J. E., & Frost, P. (2008). The contours and consequences of compassion at work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29(2), 193-218.