Sympathy and empathy remain emotions quite dangerous, and I will include a caution to avoid these emotional entanglements. Yet, in discussing sympathy and empathy, a question was raised regarding compassion, and I would speak to this tool. Please note that sympathy and empathy are not compassion, and understanding the difference remains fundamental to using compassion correctly to build people.
The dictionary declares that compassion means “to suffer together.” Intimating that compassionate people feel motivated to relieve suffering for they have felt the pain of suffering in another. But, compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism. Empathy is all about taking the perspective of and feeling another person’s emotions. The taking is dangerous, the feeling is dangerous, and combined empathy becomes all about the selfishness of the person taking and feeling, not the sufferer. Compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help, taking nothing, onboarding no selfish emotional entanglements for personal gain, simply a desire to help relieve suffering. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.
[Evolutionary roots for compassion] – Check this video out! Well worth your time!
The focus of compassionate people is to help without benefiting personally a person or animal in pain. Be that pain physical, emotional, mental, etc.; the focus is always on the other and on helping as able. Interestingly, compassion is rooted deep in the brain, whereas empathy, sympathy, and altruism are not. Compassion changes a person fundamentally for the better, whereas research supports that sympathy, empathy, and even altruistic actions do not. Hence compassion can be a tool in a leader’s toolbox, whereas sympathy and empathy are more often than not useless in situations.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” – Dalai Lama
“Compassion does not just happen. Pity does, but compassion is not pity. It’s not a feeling. Compassion is a viewpoint, a way of life, a perspective, a habit that becomes a discipline – and more than anything else. Compassion is a choice we make that love is more important than comfort or convenience.” – Glennon Doyle Melton
It is clear that compassion is intentionality, a cognizant decision to act, and the purpose is always to help. Sympathy, empathy, and altruism are simply unconscious emotional desires; unless the person showing these emotions is there for personal gain, for deception is intentional and conscious.
Please note, I am not delving into the various types of compassion. Other researchers have done this, and frankly, I feel like Mark Twain’s quote has come to life, “We have studied something so much, we now know nothing about it.” If you want a resource for diving deeper into compassion, check out Dr. Paul Eckman’s “Emotional Awareness” as a launch point. Be advised, emotions are a choice made consciously, and too many researchers refuse this belief. Passive emotional beliefs rob us of fundamental power and abilities for being human.
“Let our hearts be stretched out in compassion toward others, for everyone is walking his or her own difficult path.” – Dieter F. Uchtdorf
Compassion as a Tool
Leadership, as a job, contains equal parts of teaching and exemplifying. Compassion for self is observable through the words and actions of a leader. Do you insult yourself by calling yourself “stupid,” “ignorant,” etc.? If so, your followers will automatically presume you will do the same to them. The tool compassion begins with relieving internal suffering, and compassion for others is nothing but an extension of compassion for self applied through action.
“Compassion for others begins with kindness to ourselves.” – Pema Chodron
“It is a lack of love for ourselves that inhibits our compassion toward others. If we make friends with ourselves, then there is no obstacle to opening our hearts and minds to others.” – Anonymous
“It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.” – Dalai Lama
Consider the teacher you admire most; did they show compassion? I guarantee they did, and their compassion is one of the most significant reasons you hail them so highly. Compassion is not a weakness but, in fact, a strength and a motivating reason to be a better leader. Through compassion, we train ourselves to become more tolerant of our own faults and then extend this kindness to others.
Leaders ask yourself:
- When was the last time you showed compassion to yourself?
- How much compassion do you practice daily, first on yourself, then upon your followers? – Inherent to note, you cannot be critical of yourself and compassionate to others. Compassion cannot be faked; treat yourself better.
- Do you build compassion and promote compassion? How often?
- What motivates you to develop and encourage compassion?
Using Compassion as a leader
“Look for a way to lift someone up. And if that’s all you do, that’s enough.” Elizabeth Lesser
“When we give ourselves compassion, we are opening our hearts in a way that can transform our lives.” – Kristin Neff
“Compassion is so often the solution.” – Anonymous
Aesop has a fable about a lion with a thorn in his foot, removed by a shepherd. M*A*S*H 4077th related this story with Aesop’s shepherd being Androcles, a Christian who was to be fed to the lions, but the lion remembering the kindness, refused to eat. Other variations of this story exist, but the moral always comes back to support the truth, “Compassion is so often the solution” Anonymous.
In fourth grade, my second trip through this grade, I had the great privilege of witnessing the power of compassion by a principal. The principal (Miss Murphy) told me a story of her youth where she had been a crossing guard and abused her power one day. The child complained, and the following day her school principal called her in, but instead of punishing her, he offered praise, sincere, appropriate, and heartfelt praise. Miss Murphy could see the complaint on the desk of her principal, knowing she should be getting punished, but instead, the compassion of the principal changed her life. I was a third-generation extension of this principal’s compassion, through Miss Murphy, who knew I was busted for the umpteenth time, should have been expelled from school, and punished severely. Yet, Miss Murphy had witnessed good and used this moment to express praise for the good witnessed.
I have tried not to let Miss Murphy’s compassion end with me and pass along her lesson often. Compassion and praise remain instrumental tools in every leader’s toolbox. Do not fear using these tools frequently, for then you also will change a life, even if that life is only your own. I am a better person because others have provided me compassion; pass it along!
© Copyright 2021 – M. Dave Salisbury
The author holds no claims for the art used herein, the pictures were obtained in the public domain, and the intellectual property belongs to those who created the images. Quoted materials remain the property of the original author.