A Coaching Power Tool created by Devendra Bisaria
(Life Coach, SINGAPORE)
The Oxford English Dictionary defines empathy as
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Wikipedia defines it as
the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being.
Empathy, then, is the sharing of another’s experience vicariously by feeling and emoting in similar fashion. In the context of the powertool it is particularly related to negative experiences such as pain, suffering and hurt. In other words, we feel what the other feels and thereby share their predicament.
As such empathy in itself is not a useful emotion. It imitates emotion and ends there. To the original sufferer it may be alien as the empathiser may actually be remote and unconnected. To the empathiser it is a negative experience, of pain or suffering.
A good example of pure empathy is that of doctors working in emergency situations – war zones or disaster areas. They face an unending stream of patients suffering from wounds, injuries and trauma. While each individual patient goes away and will move on and heal over periods of time, the doctor sees the next patient, usually immediately. The empathizing doctor therefore, is subject to continuous, seemingly unending suffering.
Surveys in such war or disaster zones have frequently revealed a very quick “burn out” for the doctors. Cases of trauma, depression and long lasting negativity are well recorded. There is after all, some limit to how much suffering one can cope with.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines compassion as
sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.
Wikipedia defines it as is
the emotion that we feel in response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help.
Compassion is a useful feeling, one that evokes concern and sympathy for the suffering of others. The Wikipedia definition touches upon a critical factor – that compassion is what
- provokes a response and
- that response in turn motivates the desire to help, i.e. do something to reduce the suffering.
It is compassion that provokes charitable acts, even towards strangers. It is the reason why we try to help others, why we can have an understanding of the wrong decisions that people make in the complexities of life and sympathise with the less fortunate. Indeed, sympathy is akin to compassion – as the OED points out,
sympathy means ‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune’ (as in they had great sympathy for the flood victims).
Empathy and Compassion
There is a close relationship between empathy and compassion. In one sense it is of cause and effect. The interesting thing about compassion and sympathy is that to feel charity or want to alleviate suffering one must first feel that suffering, i.e., share the experience. In other words, empathise with the sufferer.
Indeed, it is well articulated by Wikipedia thus,
One may need to have a certain amount of empathy before being able to experience accurate sympathy or compassion.
In sum, empathy is a pre-condition for compassion. The sequence of occurrence is illustrated below:
When we find our client suffering due to empathy (for another person or due to some other experience), the solution for them can lie in converting that empathy to compassion and making the outcome a positive and value-adding emotion.
There are techniques for going through the process depicted above, like meditation. Indeed, the Mind and Life Institute in Massachusetts, USA classifies its research under Mindfulness and has been studying and experimenting with its techniques, primarily meditation. Their clinical studies have shown that stress caused by pure empathy (as in the case of the doctors above) brightly lit up (on charts!) several areas of the brain. However, after 2 to 3 months of meditation practice focused on compassionate thoughts, the readings were markedly less and confined to much smaller areas of the brain.
As coaches we can explain the difference between empathy and compassion and enable the client to understand the negative impact of the former as opposed to the positive and useful impact of the latter. Further, we can also help the client become more mindful – the many other benefits and coaching applications of mindfulness are described in the ICA paper on the topic.
It should be added that the understanding of empathy and compassion along with application of the latter could make us better coaches as well. When we empathise with the client and convert that energy to compassion, we are able to harness our instincts to do good, to alleviate the suffering and condition of the client. In fact, it is essential to feel compassion for the client to be a good and effective coach! Additionally, there is another beneficial side-effect of this transformation – the coach no longer runs the risk of “burn out” because the experience is no longer that of pure empathy. Compassion, with its associate positive impact on the other person, is a much gentler emotion to carry.