Compassion Vs. Empathy

Posted by jlubans on December 20, 2016

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Stop the e-presses!
Well, maybe not that big a deal, but our seeking leaders/followers with beaucoup empathy (as I wrote recently in “Bibliotherapy for (Recovering) Jerks”) may not be precisely what we want!
How can that be?
Maybe a quibble, but the word empathy is understood by some as “the ability to relate to another person’s pain vicariously, as if one has experienced that pain themselves.”
According to an essay in the WSJ, “The Perils of Empathy,”
“In politics and policy, trying to feel the pain of others is a bad idea. Empathy distorts our reasoning and makes us biased, tribal and often cruel”
In clinical trials, as they say, it was found that
“Empathy was difficult and unpleasant—it wore people out.
This is consistent with other findings suggesting that vicarious suffering not only leads to bad decision-making but also causes burnout and withdrawal.”
Interesting or a bizarre semantic quibble?*
Do we not use the terms interchangeably? Surely when we feel empathy for someone in the workplace we want to say we’ve walked in their shoes and understand where they are coming from and what they are going through. And, implicitly, we want to do more than simply listen to the complaint; we will do something about it.
The author, a psychology professor, recommends we reduce empathy and increase compassion. Compassion is better because it “does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”
Among lexicographers, “Compassion is the broader word: it refers to both an understanding of another’s pain and the desire to somehow mitigate that pain.”
I suppose more than a few sermons have been preached about the difference between these two words. So, I will leave the theological and ethical aspects to others.
What I like about compassion is the word’s implicit desire to alleviate someone’s suffering. In other words, it promotes doing something about it, not sitting there prattling self-serving phrases like “I feel your pain.” Imagine how much that is about the speaker rather than the afflicted.
Compassion may be the better term in the workplace because it means that you understand (not, like empathy vicariously experience someone’s frustration, pain, anger, hatred, illness, etc.).
You understand what is happening, and the difference maker for me, is that compassionate people have an instinctive desire to take action to help. Empathy – as used in the clinical sense – carries no intended action with it. “I can feel your pain”, someone said. And, I can well understand why the phrase is now ridiculed.
Feeling someone’s pain is not the same as doing something about it.
Sometimes getting stuck in empathy is circumstantial. I am reminded of a department with a difficult-to-fix customer service problem. While I could empathize with clients, my hands were tied, sort of. A toxic employee, a weak department leader, and an organization reluctant to take down jerktiude made change difficult; a confounding situation with me stuck in the middle.

*The semantics remind me of a puzzling event from my career.
Not long after starting my first professional job I was buttonholed by a young instructor – probably a PhD candidate.
I think the conversation was pretty mundane about some library procedure. But, when I used the phrase, “of course” – my interlocutor saw red. Registering annoyance, he admonished me never to use that phrase.
Looking back, I suspect he’d just been put through the wringer by his dissertation committee and told to remove all the “of courses” in his first two chapters.
His vehemence puzzled me, but we continued the conversation. Unintentionally I let an “of course” slip out. The instructor’s bugged eyes and perspiration on his mottled forehead suggested violence was next.
So, I hastily invented a reason to depart and did so with alacrity.
I never did figure out his outrage, but like empathy/compassion we can go overboard parsing meanings.
Use either term; just don’t say you feel someone’s pain but take no action.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016
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