As we began to recognise people as complex beings and looked for ways to inspire, motivate and engage them toward the achievement of organisational goals, empathy rose to the fore as a method of connection and a capacity to understand.
And whilst empathy is a significant step along the leadership ladder beyond sympathy, we can evolve beyond empathy, and I suggest that evolution leads us to compassion.
But what is compassion really, given most definitions are nebulous at best?
Since it’s a word often connected with the Buddhist faith, it might be appropriate to quote the Dalai Lama:
‘Compassion is an openness to the suffering of others with a commitment to relieve it.’
‘Love and compassion are necessities, they are not luxuries. Without them, humanity can not survive.’
To further illuminate the subject we can consider compassion v. empathy v. sympathy this way:
noticing = sympathy
noticing + feeling = empathy
noticing + feeling + responding = compassion
What are we noticing? PAIN.
We’re noticing someone is experiencing pain, in one or many of its various forms like disappointment, frustration, confusion, sadness, loss, depression. Some of us are more naturally buoyant, able to bounce back from setbacks. Others find it a little harder to jump back up for the next round. And some pain is far greater than a setback because of course we’re not only speaking of work life here, we’re speaking of life as well. Illness, divorce, death, financial pressure, you know the options.
To notice pain, we need to have a baseline reading on someone. We need to know how they behave when they’re not in pain, so we can recognise when they are. So it goes without saying that leaders need to know their people. But noticing pain is not enough.
We need to feel with the person in pain, to empathise by connecting with them in that place of discomfort, yet empathy is not enough.
We need to respond to the pain, look inside it, learn from it and together stand in the face of it.
It might be the religious reference, or the fact that compassion is often considered a feminine trait, but compassion (like kindness) is too often viewed as of minimal relevance in a business context.
True compassion, however, is not sentimental, it is strength.
It’s a recognition in another of our shared humanity. An awareness that we are all doing our best with what we know, what we have, who we are and the situation we find ourselves in. That despite what we are facing, we are whole and resilient.
Compassion is a commitment to meet another in their challenge and work together to move forward. It’s nonjudgmental, free of attachment to defined outcomes, and never tainted with pity.
I would even argue that without compassion, leaders are incapable of leading their teams to greatness. They are unable to effectively inspire, connect with and align the dreams and drives of their people toward organisational outcomes because they are limited in their ability to deal with the complexity of the whole person.
When we allow ourselves to show compassion, something extraordinary happens. We soften, we let down our guard, we drop the mask and in doing so we allow our greatest strengths to come to the fore - our ability to connect. We are human. We are complex. We are here together on this grand adventure of life and through our work, we can combine our skills and talents to achieve the improbable.
But if we spend our time pretending that we have all the answers, that nothing ever goes wrong, and that we are perfect, we’ll miss that chance, lost in our isolation and ignorance.
Now I can’t promise you’ll hit your goals 3 months ahead of schedule, but I can promise you that if you’re courageous enough to cultivate compassion (and in doing so create the opportunity to show kindness) your experience of life and work will change.
If that’s compelling enough here’s how:
This activity is inspired by a TED talk on compassion by Daniel Goleman, academic, psychologist and best selling author of ‘Emotional Intelligence’.
In his talk, Goleman shares research into social neuroscience that provides evidence that our default wiring is to be compassionate, but what gets in the way is the fact that we are most often focused on ourselves or whatever we are doing, so rarely are we fully focused on another.
So this activity is your opportunity to demonstrate to yourself your innate ability to feel and show compassion, and you’re going to do that by cultivating ‘a human moment’.
Here is your challenge:
Next time you have an interaction with a colleague, whether initiated by you or them do the following -
Put down your phone and put it out of eyesight.
Close your laptop or send your desktop to sleep.
Put all distractions aside.
Face the person with open, relaxed body language.
Make natural eye contact.
Gift them your full attention.
That is all.
Your humanity will do the rest.
We know how to connect, but it requires attentiveness. So your focus here is to begin with that.
*If you’re super keen, track the quality of your interactions for a week, noting when you do prioritise attention and when you don’t, along with any differences in how you feel and behave.
Inspired by a School of Life animated clip on Self Compassion, you’re going to gift yourself some of that non-judgmental attention, kindness and dare I say it - love.
Watch the clip and follow the instructions...
Happy trails, Bec xx
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