At a meeting of 20 scientists and 6 lab technicians in a research and development company, one of the technicians, Sharon, unexpectedly bursts into tears. She describes how “pulled apart” she feels by all the competing needs and priorities of the scientists, and she wails, “I am so frustrated that I can’t do the quality of work I want to do because there is just too much of it, and there is no way to prioritize anything.”
Fortunately, the manager had been developing self-awareness and communication skills over the past several months in our coaching sessions, so he pauses, takes a breath, and responds in a concerned and caring way. After reflecting her words and feelings back to her, he asks, “Do I get what you are saying, Sharon?” His empathy for her shifts an anxious, nearly combative tone in the room to one in which, as they charmingly describe it, “we need to figure out better ways to get the work done without beating the crap out of one another.”
The manager does not leave it at that. He continues to ask questions of this technician and the five others present so he and the other scientists can better understand the conditions that led to her outburst. This helps all of them figure out how to improve the situation and, they hope, to decrease everyone’s stress.
This manager acted compassionately. He did something to understand and alleviate the conditions causing the distress of the lab technicians.
If this department manager had been gripped by fear (“She’s challenging my authority!”), anger (“This makes me look like a bad manager.”), or any of their cousins—anxiety, annoyance, and embarrassment—he would have gone on automatic and likely become hostile and inflexible. In this state, he would have lost access to his empathy and compassion. Fear and anger make us self-protective, unable to notice what others need.
A manager’s role in extending compassion is important. The emotions of the most powerful person in the room are usually the most contagious. Because of this, a leader’s responsibility to maintain a sense of equanimity and empathy, even compassion, is greater than anyone else’s. Due to the resonance circuits among us, a leader’s calm and compassionate state activates similar states in others.
True compassion is a relationship among equals. It is not top- down or feeling pity or sorry for another person. Pity is a “near enemy” to compassion because it distances us from one another. When we feel pity for people, it’s as if we don’t share a common humanity with them or as if those who are suffering are less human than we are. They’re “beneath” us. Pity is a way of protecting oneself from other people’s pain. However, all of us get afraid and angry. Life—and our meetings—are challenging for everyone. When you’re truly compassionate, you recognize you’re not separate from another’s distress or exempt from distress in your own life. It takes courage to be compassionate because it opens us up to feel the pain of others.
When have you extended compassion as this manager did? What enabled you to do this and what was the affect on the conversation? I’d like to hear your story in the comments below.
This blog draws on my forthcoming book Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time. Click here to leave your email address and we will notify you when the book becomes available this Fall.