“Compassion, respect and gratitude are not the ‘soft stuff’ they are the very bedrock of organisational vitality.” – Mary Freer (The Compassion Revolution)
Compassion is sometimes misunderstood. And it’s a word that is not really used all that much outside of care industries and religion. But it’s one that we have a responsibility to take seriously if we want to change the current trajectory we’re on as a species.
From Empathy to Compassion
We might talk about empathy more than compassion. We may even use the two words interchangeably. But there is an important distinction between them:
Empathy – from the Latin root:
Em (in/to put yourself into)
Pati (to feel/suffer)
Empathy is putting yourself into the suffering of another person.
Compassion – from the Latin root:
Pati (to feel/suffer)
Compassion is the act of truly seeing another person, and endure alongside them so that their suffering may be relieved.
What’s the difference?
Empathy is a road into compassion, it doesn’t actually require any response.
To move from EMpassion to COMpassion you must respond to and act upon the feeling in order to move WITH the other person. You might experience the suffering of another person without them ever knowing (empathy). But compassion makes the other person feel seen, heard, understood. As such, they feel accepted in their humanness.
Mary Freer believes that compassion is the only viable future. She is on a mission to help leaders become compassionate in their approaches to building workplaces, organisations, and communities.
In a world where people are experiencing increased stress, uncertainty, and anxiety, we need to approach life differently.
“We urgently need to build a world where we are supported and encouraged to notice the distress in ourselves and others and act to alleviate that distress with the support from those around us.”
– Mary Freer
It’s not that people don’t want to be compassionate. Not everyone is selfish and uncaring. In fact, as Mary Freer discovered through her survey of nearly 150,000 people, most of us long to be more compassionate and see compassion at the heart of our lives.
People say things such as:
- “I want to notice what is happening to my colleagues”
- “I want to ask people how they are and wait for the answer so that I can actually do something”
- “I want to really show up and be there for those I work with”
- “I want to stand up to bullying”
- “I want to be the sort of person who doesn’t let bad behaviour slide”
Mary identified that these are all pledges of compassion. We all want the time and space to bring more compassion into our lives.
The beautiful thing about this list, is it focusses outwards. It’s not: “I want colleagues to notice what is happening to me”, or “I want people to ask me how I’m feeling”.
Instead, it takes time to identify small things we can do as individuals that can change our micro-cultures and communities in massive ways.
Compassion is so often seen as soft stuff. It’s thought of as weak and passive. In the same way that ‘sensitivity’ is associated with an inability to cope with life (thin skin), compassion can be tied up with a sense of fragility. Well it’s not. In fact, it is anything but!
Opening a Door for Someone
Kindness: opening a door for someone because it’s a nice thing to do.
Empathy: knowing someone is following you through the door and thinking how nice it would feel to have the door opened for you if you were in their shoes.
Compassion: remembering the conversation you had with the person about a time when a manager deliberately slammed a door in their face and how emotionally painful they found that experience of feeling belittled and small. So you open it for them, and give them a warm greeting.
Compassion isn’t the action itself. It’s the compulsion that drives the action. And it always sees the human being at the other end.
In a nutshell, we are compassionate when we truly see the other person.
That’s why it takes empathy a step further. It takes you out of the equation.
The Golden Rule
‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you’, has always been problematic for me. Why? Because it places us at the heart of how we treat others. And it gives us permission to place our own preferences and needs upon people who don’t necessarily have the same ones as us.
Compassion is the act of giving to others what they need from you. This is not necessarily what you would need if you were in their shoes. We are all very different creatures with a variety of preferences, desires, and emotional needs. Just because I would want a low key birthday celebration with just a few close friends, it doesn’t mean they would want the same.
Empathy is the gateway to compassion. Because it is placing yourself into someone else’s situation and imagining how it feels to be there. This helps you relate and feel a sense of connectedness to that person.
Compassion takes you outside of your own feeling (how I would feel to be in that position), and moves you to a place where you seek to understand what THEY are feeling, IN ORDER TO ACT, to alleviate their suffering or pain in some way.
Compassion is driven by the desire to remove suffering. Before we can do that, we must become aware of the suffering in the first place. Sometimes we are so busy doing life, that we fail to look up for long enough to notice distress in others and ourselves.
It wasn’t until my conversation with Mary that I really started to grapple with the true power of self-compassion. It’s an idea I had subconsciously written off as a bit soft, fluffy, and disingenuous. But I realised that this is because I didn’t get it. I had misunderstood what it meant. Not least because most things I had read about it talk about ‘being gentle with yourself’ and ‘remind yourself that you’re good enough’, and so on. What if it’s not that easy? Which, invariably it isn’t.
Self-compassion is much more profound than that. It’s a lot more messy and as such, more difficult to define as a one size fits all thing.
It’s an ongoing process. Stepping into moments of distress, suffering, and pain. And sitting with that past version of yourself, to see, feel, and acknowledge the pain of it. Not to understand it, or to reframe it within the context of what became possible because of it. But to simply recognise it and put an arm around that person (your past self), and comfort them with the gift of seeing, hearing, and accepting them as they are in that moment.