It’s the theme for the first of the 12 Days of Christmas, when House of Friendship, a local charitable social services agency, invites the Kitchener-Waterloo community to take part in 12 Days for Good. We commit to doing something good every day for our favourite causes and our community. Each day has a theme – today, it’s compassion.
As I consider compassion and what it means in my own life, as a coach and as a person – and try to think of ways to demonstrate it – I see that it’s not simply a feeling. It requires action. Or so it seems to me. Even the dictionary definition indicates a desire to alleviate the suffering.
Compassion (n) – a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
Though they’re sometimes used interchangeably, sympathy, empathy and compassion are quite different. All involve feeling, but it’s the depth of the feeling and what emerges from it that make the distinction.
Sympathy – When I feel sympathy, I feel FOR you. I feel sad that you’re having a bad time, but there is distance between me and your pain. I don’t actually feel it. It’s more of an intellectual exercise than a participative one. I can recognize that things are awful for you, but I’m not affected.
Empathy – When I feel empathy, I feel WITH you. I tune into your emotional experience. I more than intellectualize what you’re going through, I vicariously experience some of it. Whether or not I have gone through a similar experience, I can imagine what it would be like and, in my brain, my understanding of your emotion has me experiencing it, myself. I am definitely affected, sometimes profoundly.
Compassion – When I feel compassion, my empathy provokes me to take action. Doing something seems to be the distinguishing feature of compassion. True compassion puts your needs ahead of my own. I stand with you.
Here’s an example
We see a homeless person huddled in a public space, her shopping bags piled around her, and think, “Poor woman. Must be awful to live that way. I wonder what her story is.” We walk around her and go about our business. That is sympathy. We notice her plight and may feel sad for her, but don’t identify with it or with her.
When we see her and imagine what it means to be cold and alone, with nowhere to go and living on the streets, we’re closer to empathy. We begin to feel her fear, despair, anger, hope, confusion. We can imagine ourselves in her situation and experience strong feelings. We are touched, sorrowful, upset. When we feel the feeling and stop there, that is empathy.
When the emotions we feel when we encounter this homeless woman cause us to do something to help her or others in her situation, we are closer to compassion. We recognize (sympathy), identify with and feel (empathy) her pain and are inspired or impelled to alleviate it. So we bring her a blanket, buy her a meal, volunteer at a shelter, lobby for assisted housing, whatever we can do. Maybe all we can do is meet her eyes with ours to let her know that she is not invisible.
So what does compassion have to do with coaching?
Few of us coach in tragic or desperate situations. In a broad sense, compassion involves noticing someone’s need, empathizing and doing something to meet that need. For most coaching situations, whether we coach individuals or teams, that need is a desire to grow or move towards a desired change. Coaching with compassion enables people to move from being afraid of change to being open to new possibilities – even inviting them.
This is a series inspired by House of Friendship’s ’12 Days for Good’ project. There’s a theme for each of the 12 days – no partridges or pear trees required. Learn more at http://12daysforgood.com