Recently I worked with a wonderful group of leaders who I was training to become in-house workplace coaches (a voluntary focus alongside their normal leadership and work duties – very cool).

As the skills of this group have been increasing, so has the depth and value and power of the conversations they are having – which inevitably leads to supporting their ‘coachees’ with real and challenging issues, often creating emotional responses in the person being supported.

This is natural, and human and useful if handled well.

One of the challenges though, is that many of the struggles of their colleagues are either shared by the coach, or of a nature that the coach’s natural and wonderful empathetic response causes them to be drawn into the emotion as well – not so useful. When we have experienced the same or similar situations in the past, we start to relive those experiences again through the present conversation.

We have been told that empathy is good, that we should seek to understand the situation of others and put ourselves in their shoes. This is sort of right.

I’d like to challenge the idea that leaders need to be empathetic.

I’d like to suggest that leaders need to focus more on being compassionate with people, rather than empathetic.

When relating to and supporting others, your personal response can take two forms: empathy or compassion. Let me explain the implications of each of these.

During an empathetic response, you emotionally absorb the feelings of others. Empathy is an amazing human capacity, essentially allowing us to literally feel the pain or joy of others. When a loved one is in trouble or pain, we have the capacity to live their lived experience, and for good reason. No empathy would lead to abandonment and loss of caring.

What an empathetic response does, however, is light up the same regions in the brain as those lighting up in the person of interest – usually pain. When others are in pain, you are then in pain, and that response inhibits your capacity to be objective, to think totally logically and to support that person in a useful way. Your capacity to be totally present to others and to the most useful way to support them is diminished whilst you deal with your own feelings, and eventually you can be drawn into the drama of the situation.

Conversely, a compassionate response is a response of kindness through objectivity. Compassion stimulates oxytocin (the trust hormone), dopamine (the reward hormone), and serotonin (anxiety reduction), leading to happiness and optimism. It’s a bit like the concept of ‘tough love’ – in order to help the most, sometimes you have to be the one to hold the line – like denying your child the opportunity to attend a party when they have been naughty – those ‘learning moments’!

Take some time this week to notice your responses to the challenging situations brought to your attention by others. Is your response empathetic (emotionally non-useful) or can you be present to supporting them from a place of useful compassion?