Empathy and compassion

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To paraphrase Rasmus Hougaard,[1] to empathise is to join in with someone else’s suffering without necessarily doing anything to help. To be compassionate is to recognise suffering, but step back from it and ask “how can I help?”

We are not sure that “compassion” is quite as good an organising principle for leadership as “dispassion” but, as Hougaard frames it, it certainly works better than “empathy”.

Hougaard’s four reasons:

Empathy is impulsive. Compassion is deliberate.

Empathy is the impulse that makes you cry at Love Actually, even while you see how cynically your emotions are being manipulated and how empty the film is.[2] It doesn’t come from a rational place: it is not the output of a deliberative function.

Now, we can all have have doubts about homo sapiens’ capacity for logic at the best of times, but when a human acts out of empathy she is not even trying to be rational.

We like to think our leaders should be rational: at least give it a go — and generally be slow, rather than fast to react, considerate of all positions and constituencies rather than impulsive. Unless there is a fight breaking out, best not to act on blind instinct.

Being instinctively empathetic is not necessarily “kind”, nor fair, equitable or just. Empathy comes from the monkey brain. It doesn’t take time to consider with whom one should empathise: it just does it, favouring kin, familiarity, tribe and self-identity. Those people you most instinctively identify with.

Empathetic responses reinforce our own values and existing worldview. Empathy shoots without asking questions.

Empathy is divisive. Compassion is unifying.

To be empathetic is to walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins; to live her lived experience; to see the world from her standpoint. It seeks no emotional distance: It takes sides. This is something to value in your own mum, and the family dog — not in a community leader.

Leaders must be independent, strive to avoid having personal interests influencing their decisions, and should recuse themselves when they do.

They must sometimes to make decisions their subordinates might not like. They must arbitrate, decide and settle disputes between subordinates that at least one of them definitely will not like. They can’t always be “kind”.

In our postmodern, morally relativistic times, the opportunities for leaders to take sides and get away with it — where there is a consensus good guy against an old-school Bond villain — are rare indeed. Jacinda Arden, who branded herself an empathetic leader, had a couple of rare opportunities: it is safe to side against white supremacist terrorist killers and volcanoes. But these are outliers. Most governance decisions are harder than that. The COVID experience taught that: An apparently brilliant solution (and classically empathetic: shut the borders and keep outsiders out) became less brilliant as the pandemic developed. When the situation called for reassessment — for iteration on earlier hasty decisions — Ardern was slow to do this.

Empathy is inert. Compassion is active.

Empathy is to join in, to immerse yourself in someone else’s problem: to colonise it without necessarily doing anything to alleviate it.

Alleviating a problem — if there is a problem — satisfies the need for empathy. So the truly committed empathist does not want the problem to end, for that way lies the end of empathy.

We see this in a lot of “focus groups”. When the battle has been won, who wants to pack up the banners and go home?

Should we empathise with those who have no problems? It isn’t clear what this would involve — how do you empathise with Elon Musk? Would he care if you did — but the closest we can think of is sports allegiance. You know how much fun Manchester City fans are when they’re winning? The only time they’re worse is when they’re losing.

Empathy is draining. Compassion is regenerative.

Ram-raiding someone else’s grief is exhausting, and also a downer. Especially if, as should be the case for a true empathist, the unstated goal is to perpetuate it, and make room for a mutual sobfest.

Rather, thinking laterally about how to alleviate suffering — being constructive in the game of bucking people up and get them to look on the bright side — we fancy is rather energising.

See also


  1. Four Reasons Why Compassion Is Better For Humanity Than Empathy, Forbes,
  2. Purely hypothetical example. Totally. The JC does not cry at crappy movies. Ever.