Why I choose compassion over empathy. Every time.

 Or why I believe compassion, not empathy, is the main ingredient for business success.

Human beings have at least three primary drives: self-interest, the need to care, and, increasingly, the need to live a life of meaning and purpose.

Part 1: Empathy

The biggest problem I see in companies that causes their customers not to trust them or to engage with them is that their employees don’t seem to love their customers. I know it sounds corny, but it is true. If employees feel any type of contempt or dislike for their customers, the customers will feel it and do business elsewhere. We constantly hear how empathy can turn that around, and I agree that we should all try to be empathetic, but what does that mean? And does it truly work? Or should we instead feel compassion for our customers?  

To start, empathy is defined as “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.” If you ask me, this definition is the problem with empathy. We often forget that no two people have the same shared experience and that no one really knows what someone else is feeling, which is why connection with other people is hard. So how do you experience the world as you think someone else does? Imagination? Conjecture? Try to connect through their emotion? Find a similar emotional experience? Use facts from data? See how fuzzy this can get. 

We can get facts from customer research and personas to guide us in our knowledge about our customers, but that alone doesn’t really work to build empathy. It builds understanding, which better supports compassion. But these facts and metrics don’t help most people understand someone else’s feelings. Empathy comes from understanding motivation and desire, hopes and disappointments. Unless you understand those things, it’s hard to make that emotional connection. Knowing this is necessary to motivate someone to take action and appeal to their emotions to build a relationship, understand the problems that need to be solved, and make a genuine connection, but a deep understanding is not necessary to help someone solve their problems. To stop what is causing someone’s pain and suffering you need to have compassion and curiosity to understand their problems to solve or jobs to be done. And believe it or not, empathy alone can get in the way of that.

Harvard Business Review published the findings of a controversial study by Imperial College’s Johannes Hattula and his co-researchers Walter Herzog, Darren Dahl, and Sven Reinecke that disputed using empathy in marketing. They asked marketing managers to describe a typical customer and imagine that person’s thoughts and reactions when creating plans and programs. The result?

"The more empathetic managers were, the more they used their personal preferences to predict what customers would want. Another key finding that should get people’s attention is that the more empathetic the managers were, the more they ignored the market research on customers that we provided them."

Arguably, the research didn’t reflect empathy in the sense we may want it to, but it did reflect empathy according to the formal definitions: the act of coming to experience the world as you believe someone else does. And that’s how these marketing managers saw the world: not based on research, not on any level of connection with customers, but their own insights based on their own experiences.

Psychology researcher Paul Bloom wrote a book called Against Empathy which makes many points in line with this. He mentions a few ways to look at empathy: for moral purposes, for connection, or to understand someone else. But using the raw definition of the word, if you have empathy for someone who is feeling bad, that means that you must feel bad too. And is that useful to help someone solve their problems? To Bloom, this is why compassion is better.

Bloom shared an example of how you need to be caring yet emotionally neutral to comfort a scared child. But what he doesn’t get into is the motivation for why you are comforting the child in the first place. One could argue that you are comforting the child because, at some point, you were that child. You may have been afraid of the dark, the thunder, or what’s under the bed or in the closet. This helps you relate to that child’s fear so you can help the child. You don’t need to directly feel that child’s emotions at that time, but you do need to understand him or her through your own personal experience to provide appropriate assistance. So is that empathy? Or compassion? The plot thickens.

In this case, empathy helps us understand what others are feeling and thinking and gain insight into their motivations for their actions, and compassion gives us the curiosity and distance to help them solve their problem.

Types of Empathy

The more you learn about the formal definitions surrounding empathy, you can see why some psychologists and researchers don’t promote or support empathy as “the cure” for understanding others. It seems that empathy can make a situation more complicated.

And to complicate matters further, there isn’t just one type of empathy. There are at least three:

  • Cognitive empathy: seeing things from another’s point of view by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is what many of us may consider to be empathy, but it’s slightly different. There is a removed quality about this form of empathy because it isn’t based on experiencing emotions yourself; only logically understanding them.
  • Compassionate empathy: recognizing another’s emotional state, feel in tune with it, and, if it is a negative/ distressful emotion, feeling and showing appropriate concern and taking action if possible
  • Emotional empathy: literally feeling another’s emotions. If you believe in empaths, this is their experience.

To illustrate the differences, let’s say you are watching a romantic love story and the characters have to break up.

You are watching a show with:

  • Cognitive empathy: you may feel bad, but you understand that it is a movie and will turn out just fine. You may even wonder if the characters are meant for each other anyway.
  • Compassionate empathy: you may feel concerned about the split and want to console the characters with a hug.
  • Emotional empathy: you may cry with the characters and literally feel their pain.

Brene Brown & Empathy

Now, no discussion about empathy, compassion, or vulnerability is complete without referencing Brené Brown. In her book Dare to Lead, Brown shares the insights she gained during her seven-year study about bravery and courageousness in leadership. Brown’s book shares what it means to lead as a person with feelings and emotions through countless valuable stories. And of course, she defines empathy.

But what struck me while listening to the audiobook version of Dare to Lead was her definition of empathy: “Empathy is not connecting to an experience, it’s connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience.

In the example Brown shares in her book, her colleague felt empathy for Brown’s disappointment to miss seeing her daughter’s sports game. The connection was over the emotions; the event—disappointment over missing her daughter’s game—provided context for the communications and understanding. Her colleague didn’t connect with Brown over missing her child’s game. Her colleague understood what it meant to feel disappointment over a missed family commitment that she felt was important. It was that understanding that allowed her to relate to what Brown may have been feeling.

But you can see the problem. If there is no connection over the emotions, there is no empathy. And, to be honest, business people aren’t really trained in how to do this. This is a job for a psychologist, not someone concerned with bottom lines and profits. And it is difficult to directly connect metrics for emotional connection to the bottom line, which is why companies consistently struggle with this idea so much.

So now let’s explore compassion, which can be a viable alternative for companies to achieve a kind of emotional connection with customers.

Part 2: Compassion

The definition of compassion is “to suffer together.” The book, Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations by Monica Worline and Jane E. Dutton, elaborated on this: “Compassion is more than an emotion; it is a felt and enacted desire to alleviate suffering. We define it as a four-part process that involves: (1) noticing that suffering is present in an organization, (2) making meaning of suffering in a way that contributes to a desire to alleviate it, (3) feeling empathic concern for the people suffering, and (4) taking action to alleviate suffering in some manner.”

The act of removing suffering is much more achievable than trying to understand how someone is feeling. You don’t need to be trained in psychology or active listening to do this. You need to be aware of people’s expressions to recognize if someone is suffering and have a way to address it, which may already exist in a company’s operations. So much simpler, right?

You may be thinking – well, we just need to get better with empathy! I would argue that from what we have witnessed over the past few years, and according to experts in empathy like Paul Bloom, that’s just not possible. When I consult with clients, I often notice that in processes there will inevitably be a step that no one likes that interferes with work getting done. Someone will always say to me – well if this group only did this activity, the process would work great. But here’s the catch: they aren’t doing it. And they probably will never do it and you’ll never be able to make them do it. So let’s create a process where we don’t need that step or we work around that step so work gets done and everyone is happy. That step is causing needless suffering. And this is what compassion does for empathy. It’s a way for employees to love their customers and help them without having the need to ever have to feel their emotions or imagine, most likely falsely, what those emotions are. There is no need to psychoanalyze and divine their true motivations. No one needs to walk in someone’s shoes and pretend they understand their experience. You only need to understand that someone feels pain, suffering, and frustration, identify what’s causing it, and resolve the suffering. That’s all and that’s enough. And this is why I believe that we really should shift all the corporate empathy talk to be compassion talk.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to understand our customer’s point of view or not connect with them emotionally. There are numerous Harvard Business School case studies about the impact of emotional engagement in marketing that showcase astounding results like increases in sales. Understanding customer emotions throughout the customer journey help a company not only build trust with their customers but provide a company’s employees an understanding of their challenges. It’s also key to build a customer community – customers can understand the challenges, frustrations, and struggles of other customers. But is this possible to do consistently across a company with many employees? Probably not. Can marketers do it? With the proper training, absolutely! But you can’t necessarily systemize empathy and feelings as you can compassionate actions.

Compassion & Peer Effects

It is totally possible to build compassion into a company’s culture by developing processes that help identify and relieve employee or customer suffering. Anyone in your organization can learn how to recognize suffering and unhappiness, acknowledge that it exists, not belittle the person for feeling as they are feeling, and then use the processes in place to fix the problem and help the employee or customer live a better life. This can be learned through training or just by being in a company’s culture and watching others do it. There is research that shows that company culture can influence employees, which can be extrapolated to mean that compassion can be learned in a company culture too. Let’s consider how this could work through an opposing example: how corruption thrives in a culture that allows it.

Stephen Dimmock and William Gerken completed ethics research about the impact of financial advisors who conduct misconduct. As stated in the Harvard Business Review (HBR),

"[They] found that financial advisors are 37% more likely to commit misconduct if they encounter a new co-worker with a history of misconduct. This result implies that misconduct has a social multiplier of 1.59—meaning that, on average, each case of misconduct results in an additional 0.59 cases of misconduct through peer effects."

To fully understand the impact of this situation, we need to understand what is meant by “peer effects,” which is defined as workers who learn behaviors or social norms from each other. We learn about company behaviors and processes this way. However, it can be alarming to realize that company culture and behavior are learned in the same way as misconduct: through peers. Misconduct seems to be passed more easily, especially if you work closely with someone. As the HBR article concluded:

"Within this restricted sample, we found strong evidence of peer effects just like in the main sample. These results show that, independent of any effects from managers, employee behavior is affected by the actions of peer co-workers. . . . Thus, similar individuals, who likely interact more, have stronger effects on each other’s behaviors."

We could say that employees learning misconduct in a company is similar to learning a company’s or team’s culture and even compassion. I am proposing a parallel between how team members can be susceptible to corruption if they see another team member setting that example as how an employee seeing a colleague showing compassion will influence that employee to do the same.

This all means that you can learn compassionate behavior by observing it in a social environment like a workplace.

 The Relationship between Empathy and Compassion

Now, before we go any further, how does empathy and compassion relate together, anyway?

To start, we sometimes don’t realize that pity to compassion can be a sliding scale. With pity, you feel a type of contempt. You believe that someone got themselves into their unfortunate situation and probably couldn’t help themselves get out of it, even if they wanted to. If you feel sympathy, you feel bad for someone for getting into that situation, but you aren’t up to the task to help them solve their problem. If you feel empathy, you can feel someone else’s feelings and understand their emotions. There isn’t really a desire to help; the focus is on understanding. If you feel compassion, you don’t care how someone got into that situation, but you can understand how they are feeling objectively and want to help them solve their problems.

This is why it may be compassionate to disagree with a colleague or customer in a respectful way. You want to solve the problem at hand and relieve the feeling of suffering, which could be expressed through frustration, anger, or disgust. However, if you don’t care to solve the problem and want to defend your position and be right, you may be feeling pity and contempt, which signals disrespect for the other person. You may not believe that their perspective, although different, could be just as valid as your own. That thinking subconsciously dismisses a colleague’s or customer’s view as being less than yours. The desire to help someone solve a problem, or the act of having compassion, is a sign of respect and goodwill. This is always present in a healthy work environment and company culture. 

Now to include a disclaimer here…when it comes to human rights and justice there really are right and wrong perspectives. Hopefully in business, we don’t have to address that with customers, but recently that has been the case. We may hear customers crying that their individual rights should be prioritized over human rights and justice. I want to make it clear that someone who holds a position that does this – places individual rights above human rights and justice -- doesn’t embrace compassion. So how do you address that? With compassion. Having boundaries and clearly stating your position in regards to human rights and justice is compassionate. If stating your position means that you can’t do business with someone because of this, then so be it. It is upsetting that we are living in times where there is no longer a baseline for what human rights means, but we are here. You can’t solve a problem with someone who refuses to be compassionate. And if this position cannot be overcome, the most compassionate response is to let that customer go and find a business more suited to him or her. Not all problems can be solved.

What may bring a sigh of relief is that in many companies, we already have compassionate processes built into them; we just don’t utilize them as well as we should. For example, in business, compassion can be expressed when a customer calls about a usability problem or is having an issue with their data. Yes, these are signals of customer pain and suffering. The process to assist in most companies follows after a customer calls and expresses a challenge. The team then documents it, goes to product management to either get insight on how to fix it or ask for it to be prioritized and then development fixes it. The process itself represents compassion – relieving the customer’s suffering. So how does this compare to the other emotions? Empathy would be understanding the issue and how customers feel about it, which results in no action. Sympathy is feeling bad that customers have these problems, but there is no compelling reason or drive for anyone to fix it. It stays in the queue. Pity is wishing that the customers would stop calling about these problems that the company and employees created. To them, the customers created this problem simply by using the product. When your employees feel pity and contempt for customers, it’s the customer’s fault that the customer used the product differently than intended. There is no accountability to anyone for anything. 

True compassion can’t exist without accountability. And it is from this accountability that you can gain the trust and perceived safety to build solid customer relationships. And over time, a result of that business relationship is revenue. So, compassion for your customers will bring you revenue in the end. This is why being customer-centric and sensitive to solve their problems to end their suffering is so important for a business. Compassion is the driver to solve customer problems and make them successful. And without customers, there is no business. They literally pay the bills and make or break your company.

Types of Compassion

Like empathy, there are different types of compassion. Actually, four according to Dr. Paul Ekman, an American psychologist and pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions. Here are paraphrased descriptions for them:

  • Familial Compassion is the seed of compassion, which is planted through the caregiver-offspring bond. This period of one’s life defines an individual’s capacity for compassion.
  • Global Compassion was exemplified by the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. People around the world extended assistance to strangers.
  • Sentient Compassion is when you extend feelings of compassion toward any living being no matter who or what it is.
  • Heroic Compassion is like altruism with a risk. It has two forms: Immediate Heroic Compassion is when you impulsively jump onto the subway tracks to rescue someone. Considered Heroic Compassion is done with thought, and it can be maintained for many years.

As you can see, these describe a progression of the scope and scale of love, or compassion, to relieve suffering. Our families may inspire this understanding in us, but if that doesn’t happen that’s okay because an individual could learn about compassion through society by observing other’s reactions in global and sentient compassion. Family is not the only way to experience compassion. Understanding suffering is all that is needed for compassion to succeed, and that can be learned from society.

It is when society is not compassionate or there are few role models available to be an example of a compassionate person that there are social breakdowns.


Now, you may believe that your company is selling a product to customers and yes, that is part of what your company does. But from a larger point of view, your company solves a customer problem, providing customers a new vision for a happier future. Compassion is more closely tied with that idea. If you know that your user or customer is unhappy and why, you can fix their problem and create an enjoyable experience or make a normally enjoyable experience more enjoyable and memorable. As stated earlier, given that true empathy is challenging for anyone to have consistently, the idea that company culture can instill into employees the desire to improve a customer’s life is golden. A compassionate company culture can inspire any employee to go beyond themselves to see customers as people first, acknowledge that they do have difficulties and challenges, and help them improve their lives.

Compassion kicks off a chain of events that build trust and safety, starting with a company’s own accountability. The act of identifying suffering is accountability in itself because you are identifying not just the problem to solve, but its cause, so solutions can be found. That action alone is the foundation for interpersonal connections in a community for your company. Your company sets the tone; your customers respond by having trust and feeling safe enough to be authentic and honest about their challenges so your company or other customers can compassionately respond with solutions.

Your company is showing customers a new way to do things. And if those customers feel driven to help others experience the success they did from your company’s product, you have created a community with members who want to see your company succeed and help others improve their lives improve as theirs did. And this is all the result of your company helping people solve their problems and reducing suffering in life.

If your employees cannot connect to your customers emotionally and understand the complete impact of their challenges and problems, your company will struggle to build a relationship with them. Your customers need to minimally feel respected and understood to stay in a relationship with your company, just like your employees do within their teams to be successful at their jobs. Customers will feel the disconnect between your company’s words and actions if there is an inconsistency in the sentiments expressed in explicit and implicit agreements. And there can be severe consequences of not building a relationship with customers, such as them leaving and working with another company to solve their problems. Since employees are humans, that means that expressing empathy is not a constant, which is why compassion built into your company’s processes and culture matters and makes a difference. That alone guarantees that no matter how tired or distracted employees get, or if they forget to listen, they don’t forget about what it means to reverse customer suffering. And that in itself makes your company accountable and builds trust to create a great customer relationship that will eventually generate revenue.

I hope this was helpful! Thanks and have a great day!