Today, we explore the subtle difference between empathy and compassion. Although the distinction might seem barely noticeable, understanding it can not only change our lives and how we see the world, but it can help us have a more significant impact on the lives of others.
Rob Shallenberger: Welcome back to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners. This is your host, Rob Shallenberger. I’m grateful that you’re joining us here today. I wish we could sit across from each other and look at each other in the eyes, but this will be the next best thing. So, as we get going into this, I’ve been thinking for a few days, what could I share here? And one of the things that I love about doing these podcasts is it really focuses on us as individuals, especially myself, as I’m thinking about what can I share here, I’m often the best benefactor of that thought. And I want to share with you how this podcast topic came about.
Now, a lot of you may be familiar with Do What Matters Most or The Six-Step Process, there are some of you that may not be familiar with the 12 Principles of Highly Successful Leaders, and this is really where the company actually started. The first book, Becoming Your Best — it was focused on these 12 principles that make great leaders great. You look at certain leaders and managers and you ask what sets certain leaders and managers apart from everyone else. Especially the good ones, the great ones. And over and over, you see these 12 principles at the core and the center of what they focus on. Now, one of the things that we invite people in teams to do when they go through these 12 principles training is to focus on one principle a week. In other words, in a team setting, they rotate among team members who lead the discussion. For example, take build and maintain trust — it’s one of the 12 principles. Maybe during that particular week, you have someone leading the discussion, and they may share an interesting story, a topic, or an idea. And then, maybe there are three or four minutes spent on what can we do to build and maintain trust with each other and with our clients. And you can imagine the power of that kind of discussion.
Well, my friend, Justin, shared that their team topic for this week was principle number five: live the golden rule. Now, there are two parts to that: how we treat other people, and on the business side, it’s how we create a world-class customer experience. And by the customer, I mean the internal and the external customer. So, it’s a really encompassing principle. Well, I think it was Brad, one of their team members who led the discussion — or at least he participated in this discussion — and he shared a Forbes article written by Rasmus Haggard about the difference between empathy and compassion. So, this is the article that Justin shared with me, and apparently, he shared it with other people in the organization as well. And this is really fascinating. And I don’t know if you’ve thought about the difference between those two words, but I really hadn’t put much time into that. So, think about it. What’s the difference between empathy and compassion? And after reading this article, it really sparked some ideas in my mind that I hadn’t developed before. So, this is an important distinction, and this podcast is really devoted to what that distinction is because it impacts every one of us. So, I really want to take a few minutes and dive down a little more in the weeds, a little more in-depth into the difference between empathy and compassion. And we can really use this podcast as a self-check a self-analysis for ourselves to say, “Wait a second, which side of that spectrum have we been leaning on?” So, let’s just see if we can define those. And while there may be a lot of definitions out there, I grabbed just a couple off of Webster’s dictionary, and see if these resonate with you.
So, let’s take empathy first. Empathy is when we feel other people’s pain. In other words, we take on us their pain, their suffering, there’s an empathy there. Compassion, on the other hand, is taking action to relieve the suffering or pain of others. Can you see the difference? So, like Rasmus described in his article, empathy can be the spark that ignites compassion. But on its own, without compassion, it can be a danger for the people and the leaders who live by empathy. And I’ll explain why. Because empathy is often reserved for those who are in our circle of friends or family, maybe our inner circle. And again, this is one of those things I hadn’t thought about until reading this article. Empathy can be exclusionary to those we don’t know. So, think about that. Because empathy is when we join in the suffering, and compassion, on the other hand, is stepping in and asking how we can help; there’s a real difference in those.
Let’s take empathy for example. Empathy can be limiting, especially when we’re talking about those outside our circles, those who might be suffering, we see it, we’re aware of it, but our brain might say, “You know what? That’s just hard work.” And the brain rejects the effort. And I think we’ve all experienced that. You see something on Facebook or wherever, and because there’s a complete disconnect, we think, “Yeah, that’s hard.” But we don’t do anything about it. And we certainly can’t take on everyone’s challenges, I get that. But that’s part of the limiting factor to empathy, is we oftentimes truly reserve empathy only for our inner circle. Whereas compassion is not only joining in others’ challenges, it’s actually doing something about it. And therein is the difference between the two. So, in this article, it was interesting to note that empathy alone can be draining, emotionally and physically. Think about that. We’ve all experienced empathy to a degree, some people significantly more so than others; for some people, it’s a lot more in your nature maybe than it is for other people. But we’ve all experienced it to a degree. And because it can bring a bombardment of negative emotions with it, that’s why empathy can tend to drain us over time. In other words, all we’re doing is taking on their sorrow, their pain.
However, if we flip the coin, compassion is intentional; it’s solution focused. And while empathy alone can be draining, compassion can be restorative. And I love that thought process. So, rather than feeling drained, someone else dumping all their challenges on us, compassion can be restorative. Think about that, when we help others, there’s a feeling that comes with that. And I personally believe that that feeling comes from God, the light of Christ. In addition to that, though, when we help others, there’s a dopamine release in our system — so, there’s an actual chemical reaction that empathy alone doesn’t generate. While empathy is feeling others’ pain, compassion is stepping up and doing something about it. One is draining. One is life-giving.
Now, ironically, this is what’s interesting: through compassion, the act of serving others, while we may think that’s going to improve them, it’s interesting that it actually improves ourselves oftentimes more than the person we helped. Think about the times in your life when you’ve been compassionate. What did you feel? What were the thoughts and emotions that you experienced after your act of compassion or kindness? And if you’re like me, most of the time, we would say, “Well, I felt better. It felt awesome to do something for that person.” You probably remember a lot of those experiences because we are lifted in the process of lifting others. It’s hard to be upset, depressed, or down when we’re compassionate and actually serving others.
So, with that foundation and the difference between them, hopefully, established here, I just want to share three quick stories from my life of people that have been compassionate, rather than just expressing empathy with us. And maybe think about some experiences in your life where people were compassionate to you. What impact did that have on your life? And if you have a family, what impact did that have on your family? So, I’ll just give — and these will be quick, these won’t take long — three brief examples of this to illustrate the point. When I was in the Air Force, I was deployed, I was away from home. This happened a lot. You’d go on these 2, 3, 4-week TDYs or multi-month TDYs as we call them, Temporary Duty Assignments, away from home. And it’s interesting because things always tended to happen when I was gone. The water heater breaks, name the issue, car has a challenge. And I don’t know why that happened that way, but it seemed to be just the way it worked. And anyway, I was gone on one of these deployments and one of our daughters got sick. And this is in the stage where we had several children at home, my wife just completely immersed in young kids, diapers, meals, and everything that goes along with that, and I’m not there to help. So, you can imagine the emotional weight that was on her shoulders, dealing with all of these things. She’s got one or two young kids, plus my daughter who’s sick, plus everything else that she’s doing to take care of the house — that can be emotionally draining for everyone. Now, if you’re someone that’s a neighbor, maybe someone who’s in the same church or whatever the case might be, a friend; you could look at that situation and have empathy, “Oh, man, that must be really tough. Sorry, you’re going to through that.” And there’s a start, but nothing really happens. And we’ll always remember the man, who is a close family friend, who took a step up and had compassion rather than just empathy. In other words, he organized some meals for my wife and the kids. He came over and brought her this warm pie. They offered to clean the house and take care of the things that she was swamped with, and that has stuck with her ever since. And can we sense the difference there between empathy, which really, at that point in the game, I don’t really care if someone’s empathizing with us, that’s not what we need, we need help here. And someone was compassionate and stepped up and made a difference, and she’ll always remember that for the rest of her life.
A second example, I was in Southern California, a beautiful resort by the beach, and I just delivered a keynote that morning to several hundred people who were in the room. Well, after the keynote, I had a little while before I needed to leave for the airport, so I decided to stick around for the next speaker. And as I listened, he gave a fabulous keynote, and I can’t remember who it was or even the topic. But the whole takeaway, if you will, was really on serving others and the impact of serving others had, and it inspired me, it really caused me to look internally and ask, “How intentional am I being about serving others?” Hence, compassion. So, after I left, I was thinking to myself, “Who can I help? Who can I show compassion towards today?” And what I found is that as soon as I opened my eyes with that thought process, as soon as I became very intentional about thinking that way, I started seeing things that I wasn’t seeing before. And one example is, at the conference, they had given me these two big blankets. All the attendees had gotten them, and they were awesome blankets, but I simply didn’t have room in my carry-on for them. Beautiful blankets, really nice. So, I’m trying to figure out how am I going to get these home. So, I stopped, I filled up the car with gas, and while I’m sitting there, I look over and there was a homeless gentleman, not really asking for anything, just sitting against a wall nearby, maybe 100 yards away. And I thought, “Well, what can I do here?” And then the blankets came to mind; I thought, “Well, this is perfect.” So, I grabbed the two blankets and I walked over to this gentleman and I just handed him the blankets. I talked with him for a second, asked his name, his background, and I got to know his story a little bit more, and then just said, “God bless you.” And came back to my car. And as I was getting in my car, there was another person putting gas in, who I didn’t even realize was there, but he kind of just grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “Man, that was awesome.”
So, you wonder what the ripple effect is of compassion. Now, that wasn’t highlighting me that day, I’m actually going to highlight that keynote speaker, he is the one that brought my awareness to compassionate serving others. I don’t know that had I seen that gentleman there I would have done that had it not been on my mind because of that keynote speaker. In other words, the point is that it was intentionality that opened my eyes to see that person in need and sparked the idea: compassion. And I am sure that that gentleman sitting there wouldn’t remember me and would probably not remember that incident these several years later, but I still remember how I felt, I still remember the impact it had on me, I still remember how it felt to have that other guy grab my shoulder and say, “Man, that was awesome.” And that’s the power and the ripple effect of compassion.
I’ll just share one last simple one, just to illustrate that this doesn’t have to be that complex, it doesn’t necessarily have to be serving someone in a food shelter or someone that’s in a homeless position. We were just going about our normal business. This is probably six or seven months ago. Just a normal day in our family. And one evening, another family that lives in our neighborhood, came over and brought us cookies. And I just remember specifically thinking, “What an awesome family.” We’re talking about, not a huge deal here, just a plate of cookies. Yeah, they were warm, which is always nice. And it was fun, we visited on the doorstep for a couple of minutes, and then they left, and we gobbled up the cookies. But I remember thinking to myself, isn’t it interesting that that small act of kindness deepened our relationship with them? It changed the rest of our day. And I don’t know how they felt. But in this example, we were the recipients of their compassion. It’s not like we’re in dire straits or in any need of anything, really, at the time; it was just something kind that they did. They were compassionate toward another human, towards another family. And I still remember it, these several months later.
So, I’ll go back to again, what’s the impact and the ripple effect of compassion? So, as we get ready to wrap up today, one of the questions that were on my mind, and I’m sure, at this point, as you’re listening to this, maybe you’re asking yourself this: how can we become more compassionate? What are specific ideas on how to do that? And in the article Rasmus shared a couple of ideas and I’m going to insert one or two others. One of those is, first of all, to have more self-compassion. Think about that. How much easier will it be to observe opportunities when we’re not so engrossed in our own critiques? If you think about this, and I’ve asked groups this, a lot of times in different places around the world, who’s our own greatest critic? Everyone immediately nods because they acknowledge that we’re our own toughest critics; it’s the person in the mirror. So, really, in my opinion, and over the course of meeting with people through the years and experiencing it myself, we need to quit criticizing ourselves, we need to quit criticizing the person in the mirror. And if we have setbacks, if we have challenges, we need to reframe those and learn from them, rather than blame ourselves, rather than take on guilt or shame or all of these self-deprecating emotions. So, one of the things, if we’re going to be more compassionate towards others, is we need to come from a place of light, joy, and happiness ourselves. And that’s easier to do if we’re having self-compassion, if we’re a little easier on ourselves, if we’re serving ourselves and growing the light that exists within each one of us. So, that’s number one.
Number two should be no surprise, and that is to do pre-week planning. And anybody that’s doing pre-week planning is going to be more intentional than someone who’s not — Quadrant Two, we call that. And although compassion can certainly be spontaneous. There are opportunities like that gas station example. There was an opportunity, there was a guy that needed help, bam, we helped. But how about the cookies? Well, that might have been spontaneous, that’s something that can also be thought in pre-week planning. So, again, while compassion can oftentimes be spontaneous, it can also be planned. So, for example, serving the homeless, helping in a shelter, taking food to a family that’s going through a challenge. Pre-week planning is about being intentional. And when we think about those who can serve, it’s amazing the ideas that can come. So, I invite you if you’re not currently doing it, to jump back on that pre-week planning wagon. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you’re listening to this podcast and you’re saying, “What’s pre-week planning?” Then I invite you to read chapters Seven and Eight in our book, Do What Matters Most, to walk through the four steps on how to do that.
The third and final thing that might increase our compassion towards others is to adopt a daily compassion practice. It can be small, maybe it’s just a note or a compliment to someone. Or maybe it can be bigger, such as a meal for a family that’s going through a challenge or serving someone in a homeless shelter, whatever it might be. The point is, it doesn’t always have to be big things. Sometimes it’s the small and simple things — like a note, a compliment — that’s what can make a real difference. Rather than just saying, “That’s really tough. Oh, that’s hard.” Find something to do for others, even if it’s simple, on a daily basis. And the point is that by doing that, we become more intentional, compassion becomes more of our go-to rather than just empathy, and we feel the life-giving force of compassion rather than the drain of empathy.
So, my invitation for all of us is that while we can still have empathy, rather than just having empathy alone, let’s allow that to be the spark for action — in other words, compassion. And rather than just feeling other people’s pain, which, as we noted now several times, can often be draining, let’s intentionally lift others and be compassionate, which is energy-giving.
So, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast. I hope this has sparked some ideas in your mind. For me, reading that Forbes article was powerful. I really hadn’t stopped to consider deeply the difference between empathy and compassion. And I’m really appreciative of my friend, Justin, in sharing the article. That’s the power of sharing, whether it’s a podcast, an article, a book, or anything else, is I guarantee until I share this with him, he has no idea that I’m doing this. It was him sharing it with me, and it was Brad that shared the article in their team meeting that gave him the thought to share it with me. So, what’s the ripple effect of us sharing, rather than just keeping things to ourselves? And that’s why I always invite people to share podcasts if you feel inspired to do so. Thank you so much for joining us. I hope you have a fabulous rest of your day and a great week.
Leading authority on leadership and execution, F-16 Fighter Pilot, and father