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


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A key learning point in the Uplifting Service methodology is your ability to cultivate ongoing relationships when someone else is struggling by “exercising compassion”.

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 what’s required for each is quite different.

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 another person’s situation; we are not familiar with 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, especially 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; caring about her feelings, showing concern for her well-being, and taking 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 are many whose lives we will never fully understand, whose history, culture, and circumstances are far removed from our own. In these cases, let’s not allow a lack of understanding to 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.

Categories: Service Education Service Role Modeling
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9 Responses

  1. Ashish Vashist says:

    Thanks for explaining it thoughtfully Ron. We had a very healthy discussion on this one and it is great to have someone show us the difference and how each one is applicable in different situations. Thanks.

  2. Atul Sharma says:

    Thanks Ron. This was indeed a discussion in the training session and Thanks for this distinction and clarification.

  3. Noufel says:

    Worth reading. I agree wth you Ron.

  4. Bernard says:

    Thanks for the insight Ron…Correct me if I’m wrong, but as you have rightly said, there are certain issues that we will be unable to empathize with the concern of a customer especially when the concern is of cultural or religious nature which we may not be familiar with. As such, I can say we should aim to empathize but there will be times when we can only offer sympathy. But the main task to is to show genuine concern for our customer either through empathy or compassion.

    • Yes, Bernard. We may not fully understand another person’s situation, but we can always care about the person themselves – their feelings, their emotions, their aspirations, and their concerns. Living life fully calls for an open mind – and an open heart.

  5. Poh Lim says:

    Ron, I’m not sure, but it looks as if empathy can only be partial and never whole, especially in customer service. As you mentioned in your blog, empathy runs deep, understanding and being able to feel another person’s anxieties, aspirations, obstacles, objectives, commitments, budgets, politics etc. would be very very difficult as each person has different life’s experiences, thoughts and expectations. Unless the person displaying empathy has had very similar background, it would be near impossible to have that level of empathy, and we can only have compassion (concern) for the customer.

    Would my thinking be right in this case? Your comments, please.

    • Hello Poh Lim, As you pointed out, empathy can be experienced at different levels. We can empathize to the extent that we understand another’s world. It’s good to recognize that we are all unique, and we are all connected. While I may not understand all you are going through, I can still care about and care for you, and then put my concern into action.

      “Service is the currency that keeps our world connected. I serve you in one way, you serve me in another. When either of us improves, the world gets a little better. When both of us improve, people are sure to take notice. When everyone improves, the whole of human life grows stronger and closer together.”

  6. Fiona Floyd says:

    Ron, thank you for this piece. I found it to be very clear & insightful, something that we can all use in our daily lives

  7. Mohammad Munir Khan says:

    Basically both Empathy and Compassion pertain to human feelings. For empathy it is not necessary to understand culture and environment of other humans, basic human feelings, values and other human aspects which carry universal appeal are same everywhere.
    I really appreciate Ron your approach in explaining and request to explain the difference a but further.

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