In this time of COVID-19 many businesses and people are struggling – from emotional, psychological, and economic standpoints. Along with this, I’ve seen a lot of talk and writing about practicing business with empathy. Empathy is a popular word (nearly a business buzz word now) and a concept that many business leaders have embraced. Heck, Tony Robbins, Gary Vaynerchuck and more high-profile business and thought leaders have gotten behind the empathy movement. But there is probably a better way to practice business – with compassion. To help understand the differences (and similarities) between empathy and compassion, we first need to define each word and concept.
Empathy, according to Merriam-Webster, refers to “the ability to relate to another person’s pain vicariously, as if one has experience that pain themselves.” As a business owner, this means trying to put yourself in your customer’s position – to try to feel what they’re going through. Empathy can be viewed as trying to “feel someone else’s pain.”
Merriam-Webster states that compassion is a broader word than empathy which “refers to both an understanding of another’s pain and a desire to somehow mitigate that pain.” While empathy is about trying to feel another person’s pain, compassion is about trying to understand another person’s pain and do something about it – to make things better. With compassion there is an action component to do something to help.
As a business owner, if you can have compassion for your customers you’ll be in a better position and mindset to help them. And, isn’t that what good business is all about – helping people? You provide a service, or a product, which helps solve a person’s problem – a product or service which helps them accomplish something – to make their life better.
Additionally, as we dig a bit deeper into the understanding of empathy vs. compassion, there is a significant down-side to empathy as it can come with an unintended emotional toll. With empathy we try to share in the suffering of others. But, as Adam Hoffman of the Greater Good Science center at UC Berkely states, “when we share the suffering of other too much, our negative emotions increase. It carries the danger of an emotional burnout.”
With the action component of compassion, you’re able to consider how to provide help to possibly alleviate another person’s pain. This allows you to be able to do something positive. Practicing positive action leads to emotional happiness, both for you – and potentially – the person you are helping. As Plato stated, “happiness springs from doing good and helping others.”
As you consider the relationship between empathy and compassion and how these concepts can be integrated in your business philosophy and company mission, instead of practicing business with empathy – which puts you in the mindset of your customer but doesn’t lead to action – instead, try practicing business with compassion which allows you to understand your customer better and provide them with the help, or solution, that they need.