1 Introduction to kindness, empathy and compassion

Take the chapter quiz before and after you read this chapter.

Open chapter quiz

Close quiz

First time? Register for free. Just enter your email or cell number and create a password.

Waiting for an Internet connection …

Reload page

Close quiz



When you have completed this chapter you should be able to:

  1. Define care and kindness.
  2. Define empathy and describe the two types of empathy.
  3. Recognise the importance of open, honest and empathetic communication.
  4. Understand sympathetic distress and detachment.
  5. Define compassion.

Introduction to care

1-1 What does care mean?

Care means to support or look after someone. When we give care, we show people they are not alone, and that we want them to be healthy and happy. By providing care and support, we give others what they need to feel safe and well. The other person is still responsible for their life, but we help as best we can.

Care means to support and look after someone.

1-2 When do people need our care?

People need care from others when they are vulnerable or suffering. Their problems may be physical, emotional or both:

People need care and support until they start to feel strong, healthy and happy, and can manage on their own once again.

Care is also important to prevent suffering. For example, babies and children always need care and support from their parents or another adult, so they can grow up to become strong, healthy and happy.

Care is important to both prevent and manage suffering.

1-3 What does it mean to provide care?

Care providers give care to many different people. We give equal care to people we respect, and to those we dislike. As care providers, we don’t need to like the person when we provide care. We must do the best we can to be kind and helpful to everyone. When we offer care, we show people that we see their struggle, and we show them that they are not alone. Giving care means that we try to be kind and respectful and to understand their story. Sometimes we also need to give people information and tell them things. People listen better to what we tell them if they feel safe and heard.

Working with kindness

1-4 What does it mean to be kind?

Kindness means being friendly, welcoming and willing to help without wanting anything in return. When we are kind, we show people they are important and that we care about them. Being kind is not the same as being weak. Kindness is not giving people everything they want. We need to be self-aware and strong before we can be kind to others.

Kindness means being friendly, welcoming and willing to help without wanting anything in return.

1-5 Why is kindness important for care providers?

During times of change and when people don’t feel strong and healthy, they can feel very frightened and stressed. Frightened people are very sensitive to how other people treat them. Frightened people easily get angry or feel judged by others. This happens because when people are weak, others may take advantage. Frightened people need to be able to trust that they will be safe and protected. They need a friendly place to feel safe until they feel strong.

1-6 Why do we need to be strong and brave to be kind?

It can be very difficult to be kind to some people and show respect, especially when they have problems we don’t understand, or that make us feel frightened. It can also be difficult to be kind to people who are rude and to those we don’t like. Sometimes people do things or behave in ways we think are wrong. It is also difficult to be kind to these people. It takes courage and strength to give equal care and kindness to everyone. Sometimes we will struggle to do this, but we must always try. If we fail, it does not mean we are a bad or weak person. It can be difficult to be strong when we feel weak because we are tired or have not eaten. Struggling to be kind to others is a sign that we need to take better care of ourselves. Self-care is discussed later in this book.

1-7 How can we be kind to everyone?

Before we can give kindness to anyone, we need to have kindness to give. We get kindness when we feel cared for and can be kind to ourselves. Self-awareness, or noticing our own thoughts and emotions, is an important part of being kind to ourselves and others. There are some skills we can learn which will help us understand and be kind to others. These skills are called empathic communication skills.

Working with empathy

1-8 What is empathy?

Empathy is being able to share and understand what other people are feeling.

Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of others.

1-9 What is empathic communication?

Communication (unxibelelwano) is the way we understand other people. Most communication happens without language and often without us knowing it is happening. This is called non-verbal communication. Empathic communication is learning to listen to the whole person, and not just their words. When we listen in this way the other person feels we have seen and understood them. Sometimes this is all they need.

Empathic communication is listening to the whole person, not just their words.

1-10 Why is this word empathy so confusing?

It is confusing because people use the same word to mean many different things. There are two different types of empathy which are important for care providers to understand:

  1. The first type of empathy is automatic and is called feeling empathy.
  2. The second type of empathy is called thinking empathy. Thinking empathy is not automatic and we need to learn skills for this kind of empathy.

We need both feeling and thinking empathy to be able to be kind and take care of others.

1-11 What is feeling empathy?

Feeling empathy is what we feel when we see someone else suffering. It is what happens when we ‘feel with’ other people. We all have cells in our brains called mirror neurons which change when we see someone else suffering. This allows us to really feel what other people feel. These feelings in ourselves are not as strong in us as they are in the other person. We may not even notice what we are feeling if we are not aware. You may have seen how when one baby starts to cry, other babies start to cry too. Sometimes when we see someone get a fright and start to run, we also jump up and run. Have you ever rubbed your head when you see someone bump their head? This is because of feeling empathy when we share the feelings of others.

Feeling empathy is what we feel when we see someone else suffering.

1-12 How do we learn feeling empathy?

We do not have to learn how to have feeling empathy. Feeling empathy happens automatically from the time we are born. Everyone has different experiences when they are babies, so even though feeling empathy is automatic, everyone gives different meanings to their feelings. Some people have more feeling empathy than others.

1-13 What is thinking empathy?

Thinking empathy is different to feeling empathy. Thinking empathy lets us ‘walk in the shoes of others’ and understand the different meaning people give to their feelings. For example, when we look at a plant outside from the kitchen window, we will see one view. If we look at the same plant from another window, or go outside and look closely at the plant, we will get different views of the same plant. Thinking empathy is like that, and helps us to understand the different ‘views’ of what someone else is feeling and helps us to see the other person better.

Thinking empathy is understanding what others are experiencing.

1-14 Is ‘feeling with’ the same as ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’?

No, these are different parts of empathy. Feeling and thinking empathy happen in different parts of our brain. Thinking empathy and feeling empathy should happen together if we want to be able to really help others. We automatically feel with other people, but each of us gives different meaning to these feelings, because we all have different lives, experiences and memories. Thinking empathy allows us to understand the different meanings or views other people give to their feelings.

1-15 Why is it important to understand these differences?

Feeling empathy, or ‘feeling with’, helps us notice what others are feeling. We may feel bad or uncomfortable when we see others suffering. If we want to help, we need to find out how the other person is experiencing the suffering we see. When we try to understand that, we try to ‘walk in their shoes’. We need feeling empathy before we can learn thinking empathy.

1-16 Why do we need to learn about thinking empathy?

Most of us realise we are separate from other people when we are about 3 years old. At this age, we quickly learn how to stay safe and so we may hide when people are angry. As we get older, we start to understand that people don’t always behave as we expect them to. Some shout, swear and break things when they are angry, while other people may cry, walk away or become silent. If we do not know how to use thinking empathy it is easy to misunderstand others, especially those who are different to us, such as people from other villages, cultures, genders and religious groups.

Responding to the suffering of others

1-17 Do people have a choice about how they respond?

Yes, we do have a choice. We can’t control what emotions we feel, but we can choose how we respond. Learning to be more aware is an important part of controlling our responses. We usually respond in one of the following ways when we see others suffer:

1-18 What does detachment or distancing mean?

When we don’t want to help or connect with others, we push them away. Usually, we are not aware we are doing this, or we may only respond this way when we feel overwhelmed. Distancing and detachment mean we feel the emotion, but instead of being curious, we find reasons why we should not help. We might say to ourselves ‘I’d never be so stupid’, ‘I take better care of myself’, or ‘It’s their own fault, they should have known better’. With distancing, we move away from others. We blame, judge or label others as different from us so that we don’t feel bad about not helping.

With detachment or distancing, we become disinterested in helping others.

1-19 What does sympathy and sympathetic distress mean?

Sympathy is pity. Sympathy means we ‘feel sorry for’ rather than ‘feeling with’. Sympathy is similar to distancing, except that we want to help. When we see something bad has happened, instead of using thinking empathy to find out more about the experience of the other person, we behave as if we were in that situation. Sympathy is not helpful because we don’t use thinking empathy to connect with the other person. We only want to help so that we can stop feeling bad. We don’t try to understand the needs of the other person and so we cannot really help. Sympathy is not helpful to anyone and can make the care worker feel overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed with sympathy is called sympathetic distress.

With sympathetic distress, we are unable to separate our own feelings from the feelings of others.

1-20 What does compassion mean?

Compassion is having feeling empathy and thinking empathy together with a desire to help others. Compassionate people don’t automatically think they understand or judge the other person. Compassionate people understand everyone has different experiences, are curious and try to stand in other shoes. Compassion can be very difficult and only starts with wanting to help others.

Compassion starts with wanting to help others.

1-21 Why is compassion difficult?

Compassion needs us to be self-aware and notice our own feelings and emotions. We need to learn to separate what we see in others, from our own experiences. We also need to have self-compassion so we can be kind to ourselves. Being kind to ourselves lets us practise responding with kindness to feelings we don’t like. We show compassion when we are able to be uncomfortable, and still be curious about others. This means trying to understand their needs and not pushing them away (distancing) or simply feeling sorry for them (sympathy). Compassion helps people feel seen and heard. Often compassion is all people need.

1-22 How can we develop compassion?

It can take years of practice and self-awareness to develop compassion. When we start, we will also begin to notice how often we use distancing and sympathy. We must learn to be kind to ourselves when we notice these things and keep trying our best. Most care workers already have this wish to help others and so are on the way to becoming compassionate.

It takes a long time and much practice to develop compassion.

Case study

Bathandwa is a community health worker who works in her village on the mentor mother programme. Part of Bathandwa’s work is to help new mothers understand and manage exclusive breastfeeding. Bathandwa loves her work. The money she earns helps her pay her teenage daughter’s school fees. One Friday morning, a young mother comes and tells Bathandwa that she doesn’t want to breastfeed anymore.

1. Bathandwa is usually very kind to young mothers, but today she feels angry and starts to shout at the young mother. Is this a good response?

No. Shouting is not kind and will not make the young mother feel welcome. Bathandwa doesn’t have to agree, but she must try to be kind and show empathy.

2. What could be a reason why Bathandwa feels so angry with the young woman?

If the young mother is feeling very frightened, Bathandwa may not have noticed that she is feeling frightened too, because she is experiencing feeling empathy. This can easily happen as Bathandwa may have been reminded about her own daughter. She may be responding to this feeling of fear inside her with anger. Getting angry with the young mother is not helpful.

3. What could Bathandwa do to help the situation?

Bathandwa should try to find out why the young mother does not want to breastfeed. Trying to understand will allow the young mother to feel seen, heard and less frightened. When she is relaxed, it will be easier for her to talk about why she doesn’t want to breastfeed. This will make it much easier for Bathandwa to help and explain why exclusive breastfeeding is so important for young babies.

Buy books

Did you know? Training and learning can be easier on paper. Buy our books now, or order in bulk at low cost.