I recently had an interesting conversation with a client. She was frustrated with herself about an exchange she’d had with one of her direct reports. It happened on a day when she was feeling particularly overwhelmed and behind. She was trying to stay focused, but her mind kept drifting back to her unusually long to-do list and overloaded calendar. That’s when the direct report came into her office and asked for a few minutes of her time. She said she immediately felt herself tensing up as he started to explain that he was overwhelmed and unable to focus, and experiencing a rising sense of anxiety as he felt himself slipping further behind. “I should have been able to empathize with him, because I was feeling the exact same way,” she told me, “but instead I just felt frustrated and resentful.” She went on to explain that the man had a tendency to exaggerate difficulties and make things more complicated for himself. “I was ultimately able to give him a few suggestions,” she said, “but all the while I was saying to myself, ‘why can’t you just get your act together?’ and I’m sure that came through to him in my demeanor.” This, she said, is not the way she wants to lead, and she knows that her response did not help her direct report be more focused or productive.
I’ve had similar experiences myself, and have heard countless variations of this story from others. Why do we so often respond to colleagues without empathy? And how can we incorporate more compassion into the workplace?
Let’s first take a look at what compassion is. While there is some variation in the definition, there is general agreement that it includes three conditions:
- Recognition of another’s distress or suffering
- Feeling distress about, and relating to, another’s suffering
- Feeling compelled to help alleviate another’s suffering
Compassion is studied by both psychologists and neuroscientists, who have identified at least three distinct neural networks involved in compassion—two that are responsible for the understanding and sharing of another’s experience, and a third that is the basis for valuing others and being motivated to help them. Based on studies of animals and small children, compassion researchers contend that people have an inherent desire to be kind.
And though compassion is largely defined by what we do that benefits another, there is a growing body of evidence that there are several physical and psychological benefits for the person demonstrating compassion including increased positive emotions, improved physical health, and a reduced immunological stress response. There is also research demonstrating a link between a compassionate workplace and higher morale and increased productivity.
So, if we are wired to be compassionate, and it makes us feel better, helps others, and has a positive impact on organizations and teams, why don’t we express compassion more frequently?
In short: judgment. As we grow and develop, our environments and experiences shape our understanding of who deserves our compassion and who does not. Our brains quickly process a great deal of information within the few seconds it takes for us to decide for or against a compassionate response, and our assessment of a person’s trustworthiness, their likability, and whether we hold them responsible for their condition all influence the likelihood that we will act compassionately. Our ability to accurately rate the intensity of another person’s pain, the moral judgments we apply to their circumstance, and our accuracy in identifying their specific emotions also influence our decisions.
Simply stated, compassion is subverted when we devalue the experiences or emotions of others. This can happen when we don’t stop to pay attention to what the people around us are experiencing. It also happens when we blame others for their situation, or when we have disdain for their emotional experiences. We might think, “If this happened to me, I wouldn’t fall apart, I’d just fix it.” Lack of compassion can also take root when we feel competitive with someone, and so see their misfortune as our gain.
As a result, we sometimes respond to the suffering of others with indifference, aversion, satisfaction, or even hostility.
We are also less likely to be compassionate when we are stressed and overwhelmed, conditions that make it more difficult to notice when others are struggling, or to pause long enough to put ourselves in their shoes.
So, how can we build our ability to be compassionate?
There is increasing evidence that people can be trained to feel and act more compassionately toward others. Training in listening and observing with open-minded attention and training in compassion-based meditation have both shown results in building the neural networks responsible for compassion and increasing compassionate behavior.
Increasing our awareness of the triggers and conditions that draw us into apathy or hostility can help us recognize opportunities to facilitate compassion.
Finally, managing stress and overload can help keep us from becoming overwhelmed, so that we can take the time to truly understand what someone else is experiencing.
With a growing body of evidence supporting compassion’s positive impact on the psychological well-being of both recipient and giver, as well as mounting evidence of the value of compassion for organizational health and success, developing the practice of compassion is clearly worth the effort. The Dalai Lama probably said it best: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”