Connect with Empathy but Lead with Compassion

“Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.” Thomas Merton, American Trappist monk,

There is a lot of talk about empathy recently and for a good reason. Everyone is going through difficult times in one way or another. It’s comforting for people to know that leaders and managers are feeling the same pain. However, to effectively lead in such uncertain times, let empathy be your welcome mat to facilitate trust, but let compassion be your long-term strategy for success.

Let me explain.

Empathy is understanding and sharing the emotions of others. Think of the phrase, “I get where you’re coming from.” When you are empathetic, other people feel validated because you share their same, usually uncomfortable, feelings. This validation builds the trust and connection leaders need to create healthy relationships. When you are dealing with a problematic situation, empathy sets the stage for genuine resolutions.

Empathy is your first response. 
When a crisis begins, empathy is the best response to stabilize the uncertainty and chaos. An empathetic leader or manager attunes to the team’s concerns and can collect more information to understand and solve the problem. They also refrain from blame to encourage people to work together. Studies show that overall, empathy leads to better work culture and higher retention rates.

Unfortunately, empathy is not enough. And it can take its toll.

Compassion is far a more productive and sustainable strategy to lead yourself and others out of a crisis. With empathy, the focus is more on relationships than holding people accountable for their behaviors and actions. The pandemic is not anyone’s fault, but over time how we respond to it is each of our responsibilities. As leaders, we must help people pick up the pieces of their work and lives and move forward as best they can.

Brain scan studies show that our brain activity partially mirrors that same pain when watching others in distress. So, while shared happiness is a pleasant experience, shared suffering, such as we do when we empathize, especially for the long term, is a very unpleasant one. This choice can lead to empathic distress, a robustly adverse response and a desire to withdraw from a situation to protect yourself from excessive negative feelings. In a sense, the empathy backfires, creating apathy, helplessness and a barrier to positive action.

Compassion is your long term strategy.
On the other hand, compassion is having strong feelings of warmth, concern, and care for someone who is suffering. The other person’s distress matters to you and you want to help. Empathy is feeling with the other, while compassion is feeling for the other. This little bit of difference goes a long way to maintaining the mental and emotional health you need to lead others out of a crisis.

Unlike empathy, compassion increases brain activity that unleashes dopamine and oxytocin, two powerful brain chemicals that signal reward, social trust and enhance positive emotions. You can empathize with your team about the pandemic’s effects on everyone’s lives and feel sad about it. But wallowing in the sadness is not sustainable or helpful as you continue to mirror the pain back and forth to each other.

As a leader, if you move to compassion, you stir up feelings of concern and a desire to help from within yourself. This proactive response offsets any sadness and prompts you to take positive action out of that concern. That creates a much different quality of action than if you were to rush to make things better because the shared feelings are too painful to bear any longer. With compassion, you can slow down and separate the feelings from the facts to make the most appropriate choices to help the most people.

Empathy is critical when a problem first presents itself. When it’s time to move forward, compassion is a more sustainable strategy. Compassionate leadership cares for others’ welfare while maintaining its sense of balance and attention to broader responsibilities.

Here are some ways to practice empathy and compassion.


  • Listen to others actively. Try to pay attention when others speak and share their ideas or concerns. Watch yourself when you get distracted by your thoughts and judgments and gently bring yourself back to the conversation as neutrally as possible.
  • Respond to others’ difficulties with “That must be so hard” instead of “I can’t imagine.” When you say you can’t imagine another’s difficulty, you create more separation and distance that breaks down trust and connection.
  • Check-in regularly with no agenda. Show you care by acting with genuine concern about them and not their performance.


  • Listen to others equally. Try not to play favorites when listening to others. You might naturally agree or disagree with certain people more than others. Intend to give everyone the same level of consideration, respect and attention.
  • Hold people accountable and constructively criticize to make necessary changes for better outcomes for all. Focus on correcting people’s behaviors and actions while clarifying that you are not attacking them or their character. Encourage, empower and inspire them to make better choices in the future.
  • Explain any tough decisions you have to make as transparently as possible. Be authentic by holding yourself accountable and to the same standards that you hold others.

Ready to Work your Inner Genius? Answer these questions to strike the right balance between empathy and compassion.

1. What difficult situation at work or home can you appropriately share more of your feelings to create trust and connection with another?2. Once you’ve established genuine trust and connection, how can you move from empathy to compassion with a desire to help? How can you find out what this person needs to move forward? How you can help them get it? 
3. After you combine their needs with the needs of others involved, what actions can you and they commit to? How transparent are you in explaining your choices? How open are you to their feedback and ongoing discussion in the matter?

Thanks for reading. Until next week, 

Jo-Aynne von Born, Certified Professional Coach

Authenticity instigator. Success accelerator. Happiness engineer. Mindset shifter. Trusted partner.
YouTube: ReadySet…Reboot! 

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By Jo-Aynne

Professional and Personal Development

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