Why Empathy Isn't Enough

Leaders CompassionI’m not a big fan of the word empathy. Shocking, I know. Now before all the passionate defenders of empathy denounce me as a heartless cynic, I only ask that they take a few moments to put themselves in my shoes.

The word empathy is barely 100 years old. It was fashioned after a made-up German word, Einfühlung, which literally means “in feeling.” Empathy is defined as intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. The most obvious example of empathy occurs when I’m watching sports. When I see a guy get hit where it counts, I – along with every other man in the room – will cringe, double over and cry out in real pain. That’s empathy.

Empathy itself is quite useful as far as it goes. The problem is, it doesn’t go far enough. For example, I might cringe at the athlete’s unfortunate mishap – But what if I think he’s a jerk? Then even as I’m feeling his pain, there might be a part of me that thinks he got what he deserved. I’m being empathetic. I’m feeling his pain. The only problem is, I’m enjoying it.

As leaders we must go beyond mere empathy. It’s not enough to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – you have to feel their pain then seek to alleviate it. This is compassion.

Compassion is a great word; it’s been in our language for around 700 years and literally means to “suffer together.” It’s defined as a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. If you think leading is just about feeling what others are feeling, you’re not going far enough; you’re settling. Leadership is about suffering together; it’s about caring deeply about your people and finding the solution that benefits both them and the organization.

So set your sights beyond just developing empathy – become a compassionate leader. That’s when you’ll see your influence and impact really take off!

Do you “suffer together” with your followers? How does that inform your leadership?

12 thoughts on “Why Empathy Isn't Enough”

  1. I think this is a great thing to bring up. Empathy happens to be one of my strengths. The problem is, I often feel ill-equipped to move out of that empathy into action. What is the point of feeling sad, angry or even exultant with someone if that is as far as it goes? I do not intend to deny the validity of pure emotion, sometimes emotions just need to be experienced, but oftentimes they should be acted upon and aren’t. I think a compassionate leader would be greatly effective, not only for those that they reach with compassion, but also to those they teach how to be compassionate.

    1. Brilliant (as usual), Sarah. I especially love the part about modeling compassion for others. I think that’s one of the most powerful results of exceptional leadership – it empowers others to lead themselves. Thanks for the comment!

  2. The only problem is we’re all fresh out of compassion. No really, this is a hard world and in my darkest hours I have not only found few friends, the friends I have had had no clue how to help – so they pulled back or at best, empathised. I am not altogether sure that God is far behind that – He wants us to grow up so rarely rushes in to pick us up and He always provokes us to keep going. Yes He is compassionate, but not in a practical, everyday way. Yet, as I have walked with Him, I have found an identity with His life and teh lives of other bible characters – and that has helped restore perspective whilst building my faith.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Peter. I agree, this world is tough and compassion is scarce. That’s why I think we desperately need compassionate leaders. My beef isn’t with empathy – I think empathy is a crucial part of compassion. The problem I see is when people make empathy an end in itself.

      The incarnation is the ultimate act of empathy. However, Christ didn’t just come to empathize with us; he came to redeem us. The cross goes far beyond empathy; it’s an act of radical compassion.

      I believe all your friends empathized with you in your dark hours. Your pain caused some to pull back. Your pain caused others to stay – that’s compassion at work in their heart. One of the most powerful (and difficult) acts of compassion is to sit and just “be” with someone who’s hurting.

      Likewise I would call it compassion when God doesn’t pull me out of the fire, but is willing to walk with me through it. If empathy were his end goal (as some would have it) then God would be content to just sit with me in the fire. Why should we ever leave?

      Like you say, it’s about restoring perspective – something we as leaders must constantly strive to do for those we serve.

      What do you think?

      1. Don’t get me wrong Geoff, I do not resent my friends, I just think that as it is with the grieving widow. people don’t know what to say or do and so tend to stay away – its very understandable.

        The word comfort, routed in cum forte, means to “come with strength”- in that context God has been very real. He did not remove my circumstance but His still, small voice gave me inspiration, guidance and courage to go on. That said, there were many silences, but that is His blackboard, where our search for answers translate into meaning. The process turned a distant relationship into a real friendship.

        James did infer that real religion is about compassion, but I have found that too much direct help leads to emotional or physical dependency, without bringing the strength to move on – its a bit like helping a moth escape its coccoon.

        Yet, I find this kind of debate very useful as it informs my own perspectives.

        Blessings, Peter

  3. Geoff – I’d still settle for empathy, despite your strong argument that it doesn’t go far enough. In a world where we might all be a bit challenged in going the distance to compassion, baby steps are still ok by me…Steve

    1. Hi Steve – thanks for stopping by! Great to hear from you. I’m with you that being empathetic is better than, well, not being empathetic. Again, I’m not knocking empathy in itself. It’s a huge baby step – a very necessary baby step. I just get frustrated when we settle for walking around like babies, when we all – in our own way – have the capacity to run.

      I’ve worked with technical professionals (like the engineer in the post) who falter when they try to be more empathetic. However, when they pursue compassion, empathy naturally surfaces. I believe if we focus on compassion, empathy will become easier and more purposeful for us.

      Again, great to hear from you; thanks for stopping by – and commenting!

  4. I have enjoyed reading your article,the comments and your responses. One of my strengths is empathy as well. Compassion is love in action. I’ve been pulling back from the aspect of compassion where I want to relieve the persons pain. I’m cruising in the I can identify mode, I’ll be praying for you because I realized I am not God. I can not relieve all of my family’s and friend’s pain nor do I want to anymore. Many time I went to help and it was not the help they wanted.
    However, I will sit with you for awhile.

    1. Excellent Chauntrell. As I said earlier, I think one of the most difficult acts of compassion is to just sit and “be” with someone who is suffering. I believe that is an ACT of compassion, it goes beyond mere empathy.

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