Empathy or Compassion. What’s the difference, and which should you apply?

By: Ron Kaufman

A key leaning point in the Uplifting Service methodology is your ability to cultivate ongoing relationships when someone else is struggling by “exercising compassion”. Knowing whether to respond to a situation through either empathy or compassion can be tricky.

NIIT Technologies is an Indian-based company that is using the Uplifting Service methodology to improve customer experience and build a service culture where new ideas deliver more value.

A new group of NIIT Certified Course Leaders recently explained that their leadership training focuses on empathy, not compassion. “What is the difference between empathy and compassion”, they asked. “And which should we apply?”

This is a question worth exploring as the intention of both words is very good. But when choosing between empathy or compassion, what’s required for each is quite different.

Empathy or compassion?

In my view, empathy involves understanding another person’s situation as well as appreciating what that person is feeling. Unlike empathy, compassion does not require as much situational understanding. Compassion only requires sincere concern for the other person’s feelings and well-being.

In business, I agree that aiming for empathy can be highly effective and that “putting yourself in the customer’s shoes” means you seek to understand their situation and appreciate their feelings. Empathy means recognizing another person’s anxieties and aspirations, obstacles and objectives, commitments, budgets, politics, and career concerns…and their feelings about it.

But in life we encounter many situations where we simply cannot fully understand the another person’s situation.

We have no way to know their culture, their circumstances, or their personal history.

For example, as a American born white male in his 50’s, I cannot genuinely “understand” the situations being faced by an Indian born female in her 20’s. She alone has experience with regards to her relationships with family, community traditions, religious expectations, etc.

My inability to understand and empathize, however, should not stop me from exercising compassion. I can care about her feelings, show concern for her well-being, and take action in whatever way might be appropriate to demonstrate my concern (eg: genuinely listening, offering support, etc.)

Don’t get me wrong. In business, I believe we can and should aim to fully understand our customers’ point of view. We should recognize their situations, care about their feelings, and take action to make their lives better and their businesses run more smoothly.

But outside the familiar bounds of business, there are countless people whose lives we will never fully understand. While their history, culture, and circumstances are far removed from our own, a lack of understanding should not stop us from genuinely caring.

We are all on this Earth together. We may not fully understand each other, but we can certainly extend our heartfelt encouragement and concern every day.