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Why Leaders Must Choose Compassion Over Empathy

Hall of Fame Speaker, Colette Carlson, CSP, CPAE asks why leaders should choose compassion over empathy.

By Colette Carlson, CSP, CPAE Hall of Fame Speaker

Colette Carlson is a human behavior expert and CPAE Hall of Fame motivational keynote speaker who teaches audiences how to transform relationships through the power of connected conversations. Colette’s presentations weave together powerful life lessons, research-backed strategies, and the call to action for personal and professional success. Attendees at IAEE’s Women’s Leadership Forum connected with Colette through her inspiring content and laugh-out-loud humor. Here, she examines the difference between compassion and empathy, and how these fit into the current work environment:

As a keynote speaker on the topics of leadership, connection, resilience, and relationships, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about empathy versus compassion over the past year. In fact, in my virtual presentations on personal connection, I quickly became aware of the buzzwords associated with the COVID-19 lockdown; authenticity, mindfulness, empathy and compassion.

During the worst of the pandemic, executive leaders and their managers doled out a great deal of empathetic advice to their co-workers and subordinates.

An example of one such response might be: “Susan, wow! I truly don’t know what to say as I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must be to home-school your children on top of all the social unrest in your community, all while trying to do your job. Thank you for trusting me with this information and being transparent about your struggles.”

At this point, Susan’s leader acknowledged her pain, made her feel heard, and even showed gratitude for her willingness to open up and share. So far, so good. But what happens next will determine whether Susan’s leader goes beyond empathy and chooses compassion.

Empathy Gets in the Way of Compassion

Mary DeForest, PhD is a Denver-based author, distinguished college professor, linguist and an Ancient Greek and Latin expert. Mary knows her words! I recently asked Dr. DeForest to explain the difference between empathy and compassion.

She said that the origin of the word empathy was from the Ancient Greek. When we listen to someone with empathy, we try to become that person. The empathetic person reflects “There but for the Grace of God go I.” They want to feel what you’re experiencing.

The empathy stuff sounds impressive, doesn’t it? However, it is not that simple.

Compassion is from the Latin word “Com” and means with or together, and “Passion” more literally means suffering alongside of someone else in need of us. Compassion can be defined as empathic concern plus the willingness to take action to help. It is not enough to feel someone’s pain, you must help them cope.

In other words, if Susan’s leader closed the conversation with a quick fix of encouragement such as, “Things will get better,” or “You are strong, and I’m sure you will get through this,” they have shown zero compassion.

Psychologists seem to indicate that empathy without compassion may be one way to lose dear friends or valued employees.

Veronika Tait, Ph.D. writing for Psychology Today in an article entitled “Turn Empathy Into Compassion Without the Empathic Distress…” states: “While the benefits of empathy are clear, humans are much more likely to empathize with people they view as a part of their in-group. We are prone to create groups of us versus them. For example, neuroscience researchers have found that people experience greater vicarious empathic responses for people of their own ethnicity compared to other-ethnicity members.”

Dr. Tait also tells us that using empathy instead of compassion sets us up for bias. We stop connecting with the people who need us, and instead, we start dividing people into them and us.

Rasmus Hougaard writing for Forbes magazine reflected this very point in his article entitled “Why Compassion is Better for Humanity than Empathy”: “Empathy is an important, foundational emotion for human connection… but on its own, without compassion, empathy is a danger for leaders… and when we empathize with those close to us, those who are not close are different and seem threatening. When unchecked, empathy can create more division than unity.”

The last thing any leader should desire is division.

Connect Through Compassion

If we accept the ancient Roman thought that compassion is “suffering alongside of someone else in need of us,” we quickly understand that the compassionate and truly connected leader strives to offer guidance or resources or direction to the employee to help available within the organization. If we care as leaders, then we must suffer just a bit alongside of those we lead.

Interestingly, the compassionate leader does not need heavy doses of empathy, but rather needs to understand that a valued employee within the organization may require their nurturing, problem solving and support.

In Susan’s case, if her leader determined and implemented solutions to offer support through employee resource groups or temporarily lightened her current workload, adjusted her hours or removed daily meeting expectations, they moved beyond empathy toward compassionate leadership. As always, actions speak louder than words.Compassion demands connection. Compassion is a call for all of us to help those around us. It is also a statement of reciprocity. Those of us in a position to help may one day need help. We are, after-all, interconnected in our humanity. Compassion revels in that connection and is strengthened by it. The most compassionate of people are often the most deeply human.

About the Author

With a Master’s Degree in Human Behavior and more than 20 years of experience helping individuals change behaviors that impact their success, Colette Carlson understands the psychology, mindset, and skills required to make positive, long-lasting change.

A Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), a designation held by fewer than 10% of the members belonging to the International Federation for Professional Speakers, Colette has shared her insights, observations, and research with thousands of people throughout the world. In 2017, Colette was inducted into the CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame, a recognition that honors professional speakers who have reached the top echelon of career excellence.

Her articles on connection, stress management, sales, and leadership have been featured in Success, Business Management Daily, and Working Mother magazines. Trusted clients include Boeing, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Fidelity, Great Clips, Federal Express, and the United States Government.

Find out more about Colette at

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