Building Stronger Relationships with Compassion and Empathy: The Importance of Soft Skills

 by Beth E. Lee, MSC, Chief Wellness Officer, STEERus 

There is a lot of discussion inside and outside the office about compassion and empathy. In this mid-COVID era, people are increasingly tracking towards those who can display these critical soft skills. Although these two terms are similar in meaning, they have distinct roles. We’ll cover some differences to help distinguish which soft skills to develop in employees or to seek out in new hires.

Let’s start with compassion. The Latin root word for compassion is “PATI,” which means to suffer. By adding the prefix COM, which means “with,” you’re literally creating the combined word of COM-PATI which translates to “suffer with.”  In this regard, compassion is an overarching term used to define our feelings to suffer with someone else. An easy way to remember what compassion means can be garnered through the 3 C’s, where the third C is the most important:

You are being compassionate when you:

1. have Concern for the suffering of others;

2. are Conscious of others’ distress;

3. feel a Connection to the other persons suffering, enough so, that you are motivated to take action.

Bringing the three C’s together with the active component of wanting to take action to help is what compassion is all about.  

Compassion in Action: Motivation to Help Others in Need

The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley explains compassion as: “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” The simple translation is that you do something beyond listening. That’s compassion. 

Fostering compassion within ourselves has become a popular subject to help our mental well-being, especially given the rise of mental health challenges stemming from a year of the pandemic, and the social isolation, anxiety and distress that it has caused. Developing interpersonal skills like compassion allows us to connect with others more deeply, build stronger relationships, and work more effectively in teams. Compassion is also a critical component of effective leadership, as it enables leaders to understand and respond to the needs of their employees and customers.

There are a number of ways that we can use compassion to change our behaviors so that we become more open and accepting. Many people look to the research into self-compassion and its effects on mental health as studied by a prominent psychologist, Dr. Kirsten Neff.  

The bottom line of all this extensive research is this. When someone shares something so compelling that you are moved to take action to assist that person and ease their suffering, that’s compassion in action. Now think about what that would be like if you did that to yourself when YOU were suffering. 

If that’s compassion, then what’s empathy?

Empathy is the experiencing piece of compassion when we move beyond listening to a sad situation and jumping in to help who is suffering to putting ourselves “in their shoes.” It’s the experience when we take a moment to imagine what another person may be thinking or feeling. There’s an emotional element here that runs very deep because we envision ourselves experiencing that same sad situation. In some cases, we may experience it so profoundly (as an empath), that we may feel as though we experienced somebody else’s sad situation ourselves.

Empathy as a Soft Skill: Teaching Cognitive Empathy for Better Relationships

In terms of empathy as a soft skill, what we’re referring to is what researchers call “cognitive empathy.”  This is the ability to fully understand and appreciate another person’s emotions and perspective. Putting yourself into their situation helps you understand what the other person may be feeling. This is empathy; note that you likely won’t fully comprehend how they feel unless you experience the same situation. This is a soft skill that can be taught with the benefit of adding value to personal and professional relationships.  

The difference compared to compassion is that empathy doesn’t encompass the motivation aspect so you don’t have to take action – you just have to think about feeling what how the other person feels. It’s simply the ability to understand, imagine, or take the perspective of another during an interaction.

The Role of Non-Judgmental Listening in Compassionate Leadership

When we look at the connection between compassion and empathy, is the underlying soft skills of non-judgmental listening. This includes taking the other person’s perspective and thoughtfully responding to support that other person once we’ve taken the time to think about how they may be feeling. Becoming a compassionate leader who is motivated to alleviate the suffering of employees and customers requires both the empathy to understand and the compassion to do something about it. Leaders must take on multiple perspectives and feel the motivating emotions behind the individual, the team, and the company. 

Empathy and compassion are ingrained traits. That means, we are born with the ability to strengthen them (sociopaths develop ways to repress these traits through their learned experiences). We are human and can use these soft skills all the time. It doesn’t matter if we are talking with friends, loved ones, or even strangers. The importance of these soft skills, including active listening, is to lean into them whenever we’re leading, communicating, and working with others to create a safe and enriching space that fosters creativity, openness, and understanding. 

Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

Scroll to Top