Decades ago the words compassion and empathy were not woven into our daily language as they are today. A person that cried or angered was often judged as being too emotional and in less words, weak. Whereas a show of control over our feelings and not letting them interfere with ‘life’ was a show of strength. Or being nosy and asking someone what was going on or ‘are you ok?’ was considered inconsiderate. 

Today it is that act of internalizing or hiding our emotions in support of others that has created this current explosion of critical awareness of our shared human emotions. 

The other arena that was void of empathy and compassion those years ago is the workplace.  People were encouraged to leave their personal life at home. This caused stuffing and compartmentalizing of our feelings, whether they were in support of another or our own emotional burdens. Emotions were considered ‘private’ and opening the emotional ‘can of worms’ was somewhat feared by everyone. 

However, what we have seen and experienced over the past few years is a complete about face.  The pandemic helped to usher in the mental health revolution and many companies are now actively investing in emotional and compassion tools to help relieve the stress and pressures their workforce is facing.  But really, it sometimes feels like empathy and compassion have been placed around like accent pillows. You know they are there, but they’re not really being used. 

So how do we flex and stretch our empathetic and compassion muscles? 

Walking a mile in another person’s footsteps is a direct action to gaining some understanding of what another person is or has gone through. But as we walk in another’s shoes we also have our own experiences that dance in the overview.  We compare our experience to theirs. This isn’t fair, and it keeps us from truly understanding what the other person has navigated in their lives. 

Empathy is experiencing and knowing what someone else is enduring. But can we truly know? We can feel the emotions of what that experience is like, and understand it from our own point of view. But this often leaves us feeling like we have run the race with them. Then we need to retreat to recoup our own energy while they refill their own emotional gas tank. We were there for them in their moment of need but we suffered as well.  

This type of empathy is still missing the point of what it truly means to be there for someone. We end up processing our own feelings while bearing the ‘weight of another’s world’. This can leave us exhausted, emotionally tapped and a bit guarded the next time we are in a position to support someone.

Enter into the room a different type of empathy: compassion. Compassion is one of 3 types of empathy, and is a healthier way to relate to other people’s feelings. 

Imagine this: A colleague comes to you and starts to talk about what is troubling them. You hear what they are saying and start to feel emotional. Your emotions start to rise and might find yourself saying, “I know! Or, “I can’t believe that!” Then you realize that you have been emotionally hijacked and you vow to keep your distance (mentally and most likely physically!). You don’t want that to happen again. This is you experiencing emotional empathy.  

What can you do moving forward?

Learn to empathize compassionately. Go back and imagine the earlier work scenario where your colleague shares their frustrations with you. Instead of getting caught up in their emotions, you nod in affirmation of their feelings. You understand what they are saying and feeling, and you want to help them, to ease their stress/suffering. But this time, you simply say “I can see how this would be stressful. What would help?” Their answer may surprise you and it could be that they just needed someone to listen. 

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

Desmond Tutu

In showing that you care, you are stating that they are important and you value them. To avoid them would be to invalidate their feelings. Even if your intentions are good, giving advice signals that they are broken in some way and need to be fixed. However, asking questions and allowing your colleague to dip into their own wisdom allows you to support them rather than trying to fix them. Hot tip: everyone has their own pace, so be aware of your desire to press on the gas or hit the brakes. You are there to be the navigator, not the driver.

Flex Your Compassion Muscles

As humans, we need to connect to others. It’s why we choose to live and work in communities. So to think we can protect our own emotional health by avoiding others isn’t truly realistic. Unless you have moved to the lightly inhabited nether regions and are a practicing recluse. However, since most people are not, it would better to learn how to emotionally support those around you. And the the good news? You can learn to empathize with compassion.

Learning to be more compassionate begins with ourselves (there is a recurring them here!)  We can best learn compassion by noticing how we feel, how we react, and how hard we can be on ourselves. Being mindful of our own emotions allows us to make changes that are more positive and impactful. Shifting our inner dialogue to become supportive and compassionate instead of destructive and critical. This is self-compassion and when practiced will support our ability to extend compassion authentically to others. 

Compassion is good for both your physical and mental health. Not only that, it feels good to help others and can contribute to a greater sense of purpose and meaning in your life.

From VerywellMind:

To bring this back full circle, how can you support your colleagues through compassion? Truly listen and ask questions.  If you offer your time and attention, give it to them free of judgment or criticism.  Maybe if they can work through it out loud with a caring person, they will come to some conclusions on their own. At the very least they will feel heard and valued. That is what compassion is all about.

Empathy and compassion are emotional intelligence skills that are necessary to succeed at work. If your workplace is in need of professional development training, call us today and share your story. We will listen compassionately and help you find a solution. The Culture (R)evolution Starts With You!

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