Six Strategies to Connect with Empathy, But Lead with Compassion

Based on a Harvard Business Review article

Last week I told you about my chance dog-walking encounter with a bright, intelligent HR Professional. We talked about dogs and podcasts and then leadership.

Why Are There So Many Bad Bosses?’ Freakonomics podcast

During our time together, she asked my opinion about choosing the best candidate for promotion to a leadership role from a pool of 4 candidates who seem to be more or less equally qualified.

I asked had her company had completed any psychometric testing (DISC, Meyers Briggs etc.)? If all things were equal between the candidates, they should consider empathy and compassion as the deciding factors.


Why Empathy and Compassion?

Empathy is an essential differentiator to good leadership.

The risk is that too much of it can weigh a leader down as they take the people’s difficulties onto themselves.

To manage the impact of the potential burden of empathy by balancing it with compassion. 


Empathy and Compassion: What’s the Difference?

Let’s start with some definitions. The words “empathy” and “compassion,” as well as “sympathy,” are often used interchangeably, and they all represent altruistic traits. But they don’t refer to the same experience.

It is helpful to consider that compassion is understanding what another is feeling and the willingness to alleviate suffering for another.

The following HBR graphic is an excellent representation of pity, sympathy, empathy and compassion:



When we experience pity, we have little willingness to act, and little understanding of another’s experience. We only feel sorry for someone.

When we experience sympathy, there is an increase in our willingness to help and our understanding of the other, and we begin to ‘feel’ for the other person.

When we feel empathy, we have an intimate, visceral understanding of the other person’s experience. We begin to feel with the person, but it does not necessarily help the other person, except for possibly making them feel less lonely in their experience.

Finally, when we have compassion, we understand what the other person is experiencing and are willing to act. Compassion occurs when we ask ourselves what we can do to support the suffering person.

Compassion is an intentional act, not simply an action based on emotion.

What about EQ? Click to read more.


Why Does This Matter?

Empathy often helps us do what’s right, but it sometimes motivates us to do what’s wrong.

As leaders, empathy may cloud our judgment, encourage bias, and make us less effective at making wise decisions. It should not be avoided entirely because a leader without empathy cannot make human connections.

The challenge for most leaders is that we tend to get trapped by our empathy, making us unable to shift to support the person who is suffering effectively.

Avoiding the Empathy Trap — and Leading with Compassion

Shifting away from empathy does not make you less human or less kind. Instead, it makes you better able to support people during difficult times.

Here are six key strategies for being empathetic while leading with compassion.

Take a mental and emotional step away.

To avoid getting caught in an empathetic trap, try to take a mental and emotional step away.

Step out of the emotional space to get a clearer perspective of the situation and the person. Often it is only perspective that you will be able to help.

You are not stepping away from the person; you are stepping away from the problem so you can help solve it.

Ask what they need.

When you ask the simple question “What do you need?” you give the person an opportunity to reflect on what may be needed.

This will better inform you about how you can help and allow the person to feel heard and step toward being helped.

Remember the power of non-action.

Leaders are good at getting stuff done. But when it comes to people, it is essential to remember that people do not need your solutions. They need your ear and your presence.

Read why silence is a HUGE power differential.

Coach the person so they can find their solution.

Leadership is not about solving problems; it is about growing and developing people, so they are empowered to solve their problems.

Coach them, mentor them and show them a pathway to finding their answers.

Practice self-care.

Show self-compassion by practicing authentic self-care.

There is a cost to managing our feelings to manage others better. So we must practice self-care: take breaks, sleep, eat well, cultivate meaningful relationships, and practice mindfulness.

As Leaders, we need to find ways of staying resilient, grounded, and in tune with ourselves.

When we show up in the workplace with empathy and compassion, people can trust us, lean on us and find comfort in our leadership.