Skip to Content
Personal Insights
Author's profile photo Michelle King

Coach’s Corner – Creating the Conditions for Compassion

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” — Dalai Lama

The Light of Compassion

Do you remember a moment when you were struggling at work?  I know that I can recall more than a few times that I have experienced those moments of frustration, confusion, and even anger because I was unable to move forward, blocked by an uncertain situation.  Often the person we turn to in those moments is our manager or someone we feel has the power to help us to overcome our plight.  It is in those moments, when we are our most vulnerable, when we feel powerless that we search for empathy and hope for compassion.

Once I was in that place, facing what seemed to be an endless well of frustration.  I became deeply blocked in my ability to find a solution and every time I met with my manager I would say the same thing:  “I don’t know what to do, I am so frustrated.”  My manager would respond each time, “don’t be frustrated.”  This response increased my sorrow as I fought back the tears and sank deeper into the well. When I would attempt to help her see my perspective, she would push the problem back on to me and shut down further communication between us.  Had my manager responded with curiosity, with empathy, with compassion, I imagine a light would have shined down upon me in the pit of that well.  Instead, I moved to another team.

If you are a manager, you may have faced a similar situation to the one I have described.  You may have found yourself struggling with how to respond to a direct report in the midst of a crisis of confidence.  Often it is a challenge understanding what to say in those moments, particularly if it is not clear how the person fell into the well in the first place.  If we enter into our relationships at work (and outside of work) with a sense of curiosity and a spirt of compassion, we are able to forge the connections that support positive solutions.

“Compassion may be defined as the capacity to be attentive to the experience of others, to wish the best for others, and to sense what will truly serve others.” –Joan Halifax

Attention, Intention, and Outcome

Compassion, is a relative of empathy.  They walk hand-in-hand but differ in a fundamental way.  Empathy is the ability to resonate with the suffering of another.  Empathy says “I feel with you, I feel your pain”. Compassion is the desire and drive to alieve suffering.  Compassion says “How can I relieve your pain?”

Compassion requires three practices: the ability to be attentive to the pain and suffering of others,the intention (motivation) to help ease that pain, and a willingness to not attach ourselves to the outcome.  Joan Halifax, Buddhist roshi, who works with people in hospice and on death row, explains that compassion “is that ability to really stand strong and to recognize also that I’m not separate from this suffering…but compassion has another component, and that component is really essential.  That component is that we cannot be attached to the outcome.”  The third practice is a critical step in being compassionate.  To truly demonstrate compassion we cannot insert ourselves into the position of “fixing” the situation.  In other words, to be compassionate is to release our own feelings and desires for how we believe the situation should be resolved.  Rather, compassion says, “I recognize your suffering.  I am not separate from your suffering.  I am listening.  How can I help?”

Halifax created a mnemonic to help create the conditions for compassion in interpersonal interactions, G.R.A.C.E., which works in the following way:

  1. Gathering your attention.  When someone is expressing a painful, frustrating situation provide your full attention.  Be present, turn off your phone or other distractions.  Acknowledge the suffering of the other person.  (Remember you do not have to agree with someone to be compassionate).
  2. Recalling our intention.  In every interaction, particularly in interactions where another is expressing their emotional state, setting an intention of compassion provides the conditions for the individual to move from frustration (or other emotional state) toward solution.
  3. Attuning to oneself and others.  Being aware of our own biases in the situation that may be blocking our ability to be compassionate and open to the experiences of others helps to create a compassionate position.
  4. Consider what will really serve.  Remember that compassion is about service, it is about relieving pain and suffering.  Asking, “how can I help?” or “how can I best serve this person in this situation?”
  5. Engage with the person.  Engaging means that after you ask how you can help or serve, you follow through with your commitment to the person and follow up with them to understand if additional assistance is needed.

The Benefits of Compassion

The giving and receiving of compassion has emotional, physical and neurological benefits.  Cultivating compassion motivates action, increases happiness, boosts immune response, increases empathic neural responses, and increases resiliency (the ability to recover from setbacks faster).  There is evidence that developing compassion increases life span. The parts of our brain that activate when we experience pleasurable activities (enjoying good food, etc.) are equally active when we are compassionate with ourselves and others. Individuals who practice developing compassionate responses are able to induce positive emotions in others even when challenges arise.

Creating the conditions for compassion in the workplace (and in every aspect of our lives) is good for the organization as well.  Compassion increases employee commitment “through the perceptions of being valued and cared about by the organization” (Rhoades, Eisenberger, & Armeli, 2001). When employees experience grief, whether at work or home, the impact on the organizations bottom line can be significant.  According to the Grief Recover Institute, organizations “lose more than $75 billion annually from employee’s grief-related incidents” (Zaslow, 2002). Creating a compassionate environment combats losses to the organization in time and productivity by supporting individuals through strengthened emotional connections at work.

Compassion Micropractice

How can we begin to practice compassion in the workplace?  Starting with a simple micropractice can create the conditions for a compassionate response.  When a colleague reaches out to you to express frustration (or other emotional reaction) to a situation, consider these steps.

  1. Take a deep breath and release it.  Breathing in deeply and releasing the breath slowly triggers the parasympathetic nervous system.  The parasympathetic nervous system slows heart rate and lowers blood pressure, allowing you to be in a more relaxed and open state to practice compassion.
  2. Listen attentively.  Allow the person to speak uninterrupted.
  3. Before responding check to ensure that the person has completed the thoughts they wanted to express.  You can ask, “do you have anything else to add?”
  4. Repeat back what you heard them say to make sure that you received all of the information they conveyed.  Ask, “did I get that right?”.  If they say yes, go to step 5.  If they say no, ask what you missed and then repeat the information back again until the person is satisfied that they have been heard and understood.
  5. Stop before providing your response and ask yourself this question – “What is the kindest response I can give in this moment?”

“Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”– Scott Adams

References and recommended reading/viewing:

Brene Brown on Empathy

Joan Halifax on Compassion

The Contours and Consequences of Compassion at Work

A Guide to Cultivating Compassion in Your Life, With 7 Practices


Check out more blog posts in the series: Coach’s Corner.


Assigned Tags

      You must be Logged on to comment or reply to a post.
      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao

      Excellent post, Michelle King! (btw, you had me at "Dalai Lama" 🙂 )

      Thank you for sharing your personal experience with compassion, and the wonderful links (love the one from Brene Brown!).

      It makes so much sense - human sense - to be compassionate. Yet so many have trouble expressing it - including myself at time. Culture and upbringing may be a reason. Another could simply be a misinterpretation and confusion about showing compassion vs. showing emotions. Another challenging part about compassion is not to take ownership of the outcome, as Joan Halifax put it so well. Feeling the need to make the problem (and responsibility to find a solution) our own would be a misinterpretation of what compassion is.

      Author's profile photo Denise Russo
      Denise Russo

      I really enjoyed your take on this - knowing you as well as I do, I know how compassionate and passionate you are about work, life, and relationships. Being able to be present with someone and sometimes just listen, to me shows compassion...I have often found myself in situations where I cannot resolve the problem the person is dealing with, may be going through the same problem, and have sincere empathy because I feel the same things...I think what is helping me grow daily is learning more about different personality styles - the way one person receives compassion and understanding it different than another person...finding the balance is important so that the person deserving of attention - may need to receive the attention in a way that is not as comfortable for the other person. As I look at the world stage - beyond the workplace - I have also found myself in situations to have deep compassions for the plight of the world - and yet feel helpless because 'feeling something' and 'doing something about the feeling' are different. When I was struggling with this, someone said to me, Denise - you may not be able to do everything, but you can do something. That really helped me...I truly appreciate what you wrote above about being able to think introspectively about what the kindest thing you could do or say might be and how to best serve the person - not just how to solve a problem. These are great lessons for me. I appreciate you!

      Author's profile photo Jason Cao
      Jason Cao

      Taking action or "doing something" is definitely sage advice! I agree we can all do our bit to give respect and show appreciation to those around us, especially the ones who trust us enough to show their vulnerable sides like colleagues, friends and family members. Thank you for sharing this Denise Russo!