Compassion – Bringing Humanity to Your Work

Roger Schwarz

Compassion is one of the core values of the Mutual Learning approach.

Compassion means temporarily suspending judgment so that you can appreciate others’ perspectives or situations when they are different from your own. To be compassionate you need to be genuinely concerned about the other person or people’s needs. You need to think about and feel it from their perspective.

Here’s a simple example

When we’re developing facilitators to work with groups, sometimes they get really frustrated by the group. The group members don’t stay on task or they don’t keep commitments. When the facilitators get frustrated they wonder why we can seem so “patient.” Our answer is that we have compassion for the group. The team members are trying to change (which is why we’re working with them) and they don’t always change at the pace we would like them to. Getting angry at the team for not changing fast enough doesn’t help them or us.

If you’re working with someone who is feeling overwhelmed by his workload and you don’t think he has that much work to do, being compassionate means temporarily saying to yourself, “This sounds really difficult for him. Let me understand how he’s thinking and feeling about it. I may be missing things that he sees.” It’s easy to be compassionate when you agree with the other person’s situation; it’s more difficult – and more meaningful – when you’re compassionate with others who see things very differently from you.

Sometimes people think that compassion means feeling sorry for people and taking care of them in a way that rescues them.

Not in our approach. Our definition of compassion means appreciating their situation and holding them accountable. It means sharing all the relevant information with someone even if she may feel bad hearing it. Sometimes a client will say, “I don’t want to give a coworker negative feedback because it would hurt her feelings.” But when you withhold feedback that can help someone change and improve, you take away the chance to change. That’s cruel, not compassionate.

When I introduced compassion to my work a number of years ago, I was concerned that my clients (some of whom work in scientifically-based organizations) would see it as “touchy-feely.” To my surprise and relief, they immediately understood the value of compassion – often because it was missing in their own workplace.

It’s hard to have compassion for others if you don’t have compassion for yourself. As a recovering perfectionist, I know this well. As long as I demanded perfection of myself, I would take myself to task when I didn’t meet my own standards. And I did the same with others. If you are always judging yourself unfairly; you will do the same to others.

Compassion makes it easier to use the other core values of the Mutual Learning approach. When you have compassion, it’s natural to be curious about what leads people to do what they do and it’s easier to be transparent about what you’re thinking. That’s because the questions you ask and the points of view you share stem from your interest in learning rather than simply judging. When you have compassion, it’s easier to maintain accountability because accountability is in the service of development rather than punishment. And when you have compassion, you are more likely to surface everyone’s underlying needs; that makes it easier to generate commitment.

Originally published October 2005