Compassion vs empathy

A friend of mine, Kirstie, (@tangythistle) has recently completed academic research on the theme of compassion. From discussing this with her, I now understand that the brain is activated in different areas when we are being compassionate, compared to being empathic.

Empathy is about understanding, listening without judgment and putting yourself in the shoes of the other. Compassion is a more active response, compelling you to want to go beyond understanding and actually do something to alleviate the issue or help those suffering. Empathy can actually deplete you but compassion can be more generative. It creates more ‘feel good’ hormones and can energise you, benefiting both the receiver and the person experiencing compassion.

Evoking compassion: An experiment

I recently put this to the test and consciously explored the benefits of compassion. Instead of buying Christmas presents for eachother, my friends and I decided to look for a cause that we all wanted to contribute to. We focused on finding different ways to support the homeless. With this decision on my mind, I became so much more aware of the issue and found multiple opportunities to act compassionately. For instance, supporting Crisis and a charity that helps homeless people find work called Beam and donating sleeping bags through my local church. We also spent time in London talking to homeless people and finding out what they needed, whether this was food, drink or just someone to connect with and talk to. It was a very humbling experience and really brought home the fact that all of us could only be a few bad decisions away from the situation homeless people face.

As a result of proactively trying to show more compassion, I can vouch for the benefits and energy it brings to the giver as well as the receiver. Compassion led me to appreciate how lucky I am and feel more grateful for everything that shows up in my life, as well as connecting me more closely to others.

Encouraging compassion in businesses

Turning to the business world, I believe that, far from being a sign of weakness, compassion is a strong, generous and supportive quality in leaders. If leaders create a caring environment then their teams are more likely to be helpful and friendly to their colleagues and give their customers a great experience.

If you’d like to introduce more compassion into your leadership style, your team or your company culture, here are some thoughts on where you could start:

  • Give a little more: So much of how organisations are run revolves around the self (pay, promotions, personal targets, etc.) and company performance (sales, profit, margin). Be deliberate about your decision to be more compassionate and look for opportunities where you can show compassion to colleagues, customers, clients or others you work with.
  • Engage in random act of kindness: Compassion doesn’t need a reason to make it a viable option. Find out what it feels like to give something away or do something positive for a stranger, just because you can.
  • Listen carefully and act effectively: Move away from being a shoulder to cry on for colleagues and find ways that you can actively help when you are told about a challenge within the company or someone’s personal life.
  • Choose a cause: Whether it’s tackling homelessness, training for young people, mental health or fighting cancer, pick a cause to engage with. You can do this individually, or use it as an opportunity to bring your team or organisation together.

How else can we develop compassion in the workplace? I leave this open to you to ponder and look forward to exploring this further with leaders and teams soon.

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