A penny dropped for me a couple of week’s ago. It was out of a Mindful Self-Compassion Skills training course in Brisbane with Dr Christopher Germer and Tina Gibson. One of the things that came up was the difference between empathy and compassion. Because, when talking in terms of empathy, many said they could relate to the concept of empathy-fatigue – a common affliction in carers. Increasingly, that fatigue is part of what we are seeing in the somewhat disturbingly frequent burnout of senior change practitioners. 

You see, while empathy has recently become very en vogue with the widespread adoption of design thinking practices, it has long been the purview of organisational change practitioners. 

Day in, day out we sit in a space of empathy with the people undergoing change. We are encouraged to ‘hold space’, to understand their pain points, their lived experience. And, as I have noted before, owing to the professionalisation of the field we now have practitioners who have multiple decades of experience of the work. 

Multiple decades of empathising. Constantly. Not unlike carers. 

The brain on empathy and compassion 

In the workshop, Germer and Gibson took us through the neuroscience of empathy and compassion. They explained how empathy shows up as shared pain – an experience that generates the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. However, compassion is love and generates dopamine and serotonin. 

Flip the script

Penny drop. We need empathy to design our change programs, no argument about it. We need to do change impact analysis and understand the implications of the changes being introduced. In order to negotiate the often conflictual space of change, we need to empathise with the different positions to help facilitate the way forward. 

But we could then switch to compassion when delivering change because we don’t have to take on the shared pain. 

As I write this I know it will be triggering people about “change doesn’t have to be painful!!!”. 

I know that, you know that. But every time we work in change that introduces some sense of loss, some sense of disorientation, there is a form of ‘pain’. So let’s just park that protestation for the moment. 

In showing up with compassion we trigger better hormones for ourselves and reduce physical and mental risk of excess stress hormones. 

How might we do that? 

Yeah, I’m working on this one. I believe awareness of the difference is a very valid and useful first step.

Being prepared to ‘show up’ with warmth, kindness and compassion would be a second. 

Perhaps reviewing some of the “loving kindness” meditations might be the third…

But help me out, how would you know you are showing up in compassion, not empathy in your change work?

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