After reading Nonviolent Communication, one of the things I’ve been having a hard time explaining is the difference between compassion and empathy - most of the time they are used interchangeably but their characteristics are different. In Spanish is even harder since compassion is understood always as feeling pity for someone. Today I was going through my reading queue and found this post from the Farnam Street blog titled: Making Compassionate Decisions: The Role of Empathy in Decision Making.

The blog covers Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion - which tries to answer the question if empathy help us appreciate others, behave in moral ways, or help us make better decisions.

I found an easy way to explain the difference between empathy and compassion - that’s what I want to write in this post.

When talking about empathy, it can be divided in two different types: Emotional or Cognitive.

Emotional empathy refers to the ability to feel what the other person is feeling and to certain degree really feel the same.

With emotional empathy, you actually experience a weaker degree of what somebody else feels. Researchers in recent years have been able to show that empathic responses of pain occur in the same area of the brain where real pain is experienced.

Making Compassionate Decisions: The Role of Empathy in Decision Making

Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to understand what others are feeling without feeling the pain ourselves.

But there is another form of empathy that Bloom wants us to be aware of and consider differently. It relates to our ability to understand what is going on in the minds of others. Bloom refers to this form as cognitive empathy: … if I understand that you are in pain without feeling it myself, this is what psychologists describe as social cognition, social intelligence, mind reading, theory of mind, or mentalizing. It’s also sometimes described as a form of empathy—“cognitive empathy” as opposed to “emotional empathy.”

Making Compassionate Decisions: The Role of Empathy in Decision Making

What about compassion?

Compassion is not about sharing the same feeling or trying to understand , but rather caring about how the other is feeling and trying to help them improve whatever situation they are going through.

Bloom references a review paper written by Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki to help make the distinction clear. Singer and Klimecki write: In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.

Making Compassionate Decisions: The Role of Empathy in Decision Making

Shane’s summarizes the three as follows:

Emotional empathy could be simply described as “feeling what others feel,” cognitive empathy as “understanding what others feel,” and compassion as “caring about how others feel.”

Making Compassionate Decisions: The Role of Empathy in Decision Making

Use in the context of Nonviolent Communication, we can get or give compassion using the four components of NVC:

Four components of NVC: 1. observations 2. feelings 3. needs 4. requests

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life - Open in Kindle


  • Like Shane in his post, I also added the boldface in block quotes to put emphasis.
  • I’ve had that book in my reading list for a while after listening to an interview to the author in Econ Talk: Paul Bloom on Empathy
  • You can checkout my notes on Nonviolent communication here.
  • I used Kintrospect to draft this post and consult my highlights on Shane’s post.