What does it mean to be compassionate?

Heart2A few weeks ago, I put together a personal list of Coaching Values. One of them is compassion. Today, I’m examining, more deeply, what it means.

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

More Letters from Camp – Between Hogworts and the Holodeck: Agile 2013

Once in a while, if you are very lucky, you get a gigantic dose of brain candy. That was my experience at Agile 2013,  a five-day gathering of smart and thoughtful individuals working to find new ways to work, particularly in the realm of software development.

This was an enormous conference, twice as large as anything I’d been to and twice as long. There were more than 1,700 people registered for five days of non-stop idea sharing. In every time slot, there were over a dozen sessions to choose from. That didn’t count the unscheduled ‘open jam’ sessions and lively discussions during the breaks.

GaylordNashville2And don’t forget the parties. We were, after all, in Nashville. Music City. Honky Tonk Heaven.

It took place in a hotel that could pass for an amusement park. The Gaylord Opryland Conference Center is a massive biodome-like structure with islands, rivers, jungles and other distractions. Rooms are in at least five distinct buildings connected by meandering paths on several levels. It’s one thing to be lost in a new city. But to be lost in your own hotel? Every five minutes? Our hotel map would prove to be as important as our room keys.

This could have been a ticket to overwhelm. Instead, it was a most exquisite learning experience. Inspired by the Agile Manifesto, this is a community that spends its days promoting collaboration, pairing discipline with creativity, trying to create more people-centric work situations, and learning.

So what did I take away from this adventure that might be useful for readers of this blog? (more…)

Yes, it’s OK to say “NO!”

How to prevent the over-commitment that leads to overwhelm

This article first appeared in our newsletter in 2003. Still true!

Thought balloon NO

“No!”

It’s a small yet powerful word, one with big consequences. It’s a word that can improve our lives and make us more valuable to those we say it to – those we want to help in this world.

At the end of a week in which I – and the feelings I was experiencing – seemed to be on a non-stop rush from appointment to commitment to obligation to ordeal, I stopped to reflect on what was making me feel so beleaguered.

I examined my “To Do” list, and highlighted the things I really wanted to do. Almost all the highlighted items had fallen (or were they pushed?) to the bottom of the page. Activities that were important to me had, for months, languished, ignored and forgotten, beneath activities that other people wanted me to do. Ouch!

It had something to do with my reluctance to use the word “No.” A little reading and a lot of reflection showed me:

  • That NO is not a dirty word
  • How to say NO without feeling guilty
  • And why saying NO increases the value of the things we say YES to.

How does it happen?

(more…)

Help for the emotionally inarticulate

Many of us are poor at accurately describing our emotional state. And worse at identifying other people’s. This can be unhelpful when we’re having a emotion-laden conversation.

I think it’s because we tend to have a limited emotional vocabulary. It’s hard to talk about things we can’t name. The words exist – in English there are a few hundred emotion words. The big ones are seldom a problem: joy, sorrow, anger, fear, disgust and surprise. It’s the subtler ones that often escape us. When we seldom use them it’s not surprising they don’t spring to mind when we need them most.

Our brains are highly attuned to the sensation of our own emotions and emotional signals sent by others. But when we’re asked to name these emotional states many of us stumble. It’s like trying to describe a colourful scene when all we know are names of the primary hues – the millions of shades we perceive but can’t easily name remain unmentioned. This can be a hurdle to understanding communication dynamics and to being understood. Especially when we’re not thinking clearly.

Here’s something that may help.

Psychologist Robert Plutchik proposed a visualization of eight primary emotions and their less intense variations arranged in a “colour” wheel that illustrates the interplay of core and related emotions. Using his “Multidimensional Model of the Emotions” we can “mix” emotions to express variations and nuance.

Note: This image has been attributed to Annette DeFarrari , here

Being better able to describe our own emotions lets us interact better with others. This tool can help us stretch our emotional vocabulary to enhance self-awareness and communication. Think of it as an exercise in emotional intelligence.

I hope you find it as useful as I have.