How to Lead with Compassion

Roger Schwarz

You are meeting with several of your direct reports who have just told you that the division’s latest acquisition is not going well. Key leaders of the acquired company are not cooperating and they’re finding that the culture is so hierarchical that people are not taking initiative to solve major problems. As they describe the situation they quietly sigh. One leans his head back, looking up at the ceiling as if hoping for divine intervention. Another member, Randy, says with frustration in his voice, “I don’t know what we got ourselves into. We’re never going to make our numbers with this acquisition.” If you’re paying attention, you quickly realize that your team is suffering.

How do you respond with compassion? You need this new acquisition to add to the division’s bottom line and you don’t want the meeting to turn into a gripe session. But you don’t want to ignore what people are feeling.

Compassion involves noticing others’ suffering, connecting to them cognitively and emotionally, and responding to them with help. It doesn’t mean taking responsibility for solving other people’s problems or pitying them. Here are some steps to take:

Name the Feelings. Check your inferences about what people are feeling. You might say, “You’ve said that you’re not getting the cooperation you need from some key leaders. From your tone of voice, it sounds like you’re feeling really frustrated – am I off?” Alternatively, you can simply ask, “How are you feeling about this?”

Connect with what People are Thinking and Feeling. It’s important that you show people you have some understanding of their situation and that you feel for them, without being presumptuous. Don’t say “I know exactly how you feel,” even if you have been in the same situation. Although this seems like a way to validate people’s feelings, they may interpret it as a discount. No two people may feel exactly the same way in the same situation. Instead, after you have identified what you think someone is feeling, consider paraphrasing what the person has said to you. You might say something like, “It sounds like you’re feeling angry because the site managers haven’t made anyone available to help you address the problems they are still complaining about. Am I getting that right?”

Be Curious about the Cause of the Suffering. Simply knowing what people are feeling, doesn’t tell you what led them to feel that way. If they haven’t already told you, be curious. Say something like, “I’m curious what’s happened that leads you to feel this way?” Remember that the point of being curious about causes is not to try to solve the problem; it’s simply to better understand what people are going through.

Engage without Discounting or Minimizing their Feelings. If people start to talk about their pain, listen and explore it with them. Don’t make believe it doesn’t exist or dismiss it by saying something like, “Yes, but apart from that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

Focus on the Suffering before trying to Solve the Problem. Leaders love to solve problems. And many leaders find it easier to focus on solving the problem than exploring people’s suffering, which may feel uncomfortable. But to respond with compassion, you need to connect with people cognitively and emotionally without unilaterally trying to solve the problem that created it. Later in the conversation, you will have time to ask how you can be helpful.

Jointly Design Next Steps. After you have a good understanding of what people are going through, then you can jointly design next steps with them. Rather than assuming that they want you to solve the problem for them or help them solve the problem, simply be curious. You might ask, “Tell me, how can I help you?”

Sometimes people may tell you that you have already helped simply by hearing them and understanding their suffering. Other times people may ask to be able to talk with you when they need support in the future. Still other times they may ask you to do something for them or with them.

It’s not your goal or responsibility to make others feel better. Only each person suffering can do that for himself. What you can do is jointly design next steps that each of you might take, that if successful, will help resolve the situation and change how people are feeling.

Be Transparent and Accountable. Asking “how can I help you?” doesn’t require you to do whatever others request. If you believe that people are asking you to do something that inappropriately shifts the accountability from them to you, explain why you’re not willing to do that. Mutual Learning compassion includes accountability.

Be transparent with people as you are trying to support them. Don’t try to make them feel better by saying things that aren’t true or leaving out relevant information in order to protect them from feeling worse. Discounting people’s ability to handle the reality is a form of Unilateral Control. It creates future problems for them and you.

Originally published November 2011