We’re throwing it back! This week we’re showcasing a guest post from Monica Worline about the theme from her latest book with Jane E. Dutton, Awakening Compassion At Work, which launched on February 17.
The science behind compassion demonstrates that this crucial aspect of human existence is more than a feeling or an emotion—it’s a complex, four-part human experience. It consists of noticing suffering and interpreting it in ways that dispose us to feel and act to alleviate another person’s pain. Researchers who study compassion have focused on these interpretations—what they call “appraisals” of suffering—and found three that are critical to either blocking or unlocking compassion in our work lives.
Appraisals are tricky to see, because we make them at lightning speed. Our brains jump to these interpretations so fast that the process may be invisible to us. Recall a moment when you thought to yourself about someone else: “You made this mess; now you have to suffer the consequences!” That’s an appraisal; an interpretation of someone else as worthy of blame.
Are They Responsible for Their Suffering?
When we construe someone as blameworthy, we block our compassion. Research demonstrates that we feel less empathy and concern when we determine that someone is responsible for his or her own suffering. Think of the last time someone made a mistake at work and you had to deal with it. Did you immediately say to yourself, “Oh, I bet Nancy was doing her best and this was just an oversight?” Or did you say to yourself, “Oh, I had a feeling Nancy wasn’t well trained! Now we’re all going to pay for her incompetence!” If you fall into the latter interpretation, you’re not alone. Most of us have to train ourselves to make different appraisals to overcome this block. With practice, we can learn to jump to the former conclusion—the one that tells us Nancy is good and capable and this was just an oversight.
Do They Deserve Your Concern?
A second block to compassion comes when we jump to the conclusion that someone doesn’t deserve our concern. Often these interpretations are swayed by stereotypes or stigmas. For instance, recall a time when you passed someone who seemed homeless or impoverished on the street. Did you say to yourself, “If he’d just get a job, he wouldn’t have to be begging on the street!”? Overcoming this block involves retraining our minds and hearts to remember that we are all susceptible to suffering. To unblock compassion, we can say to ourselves something such as: “There, but for grace and circumstances, go I. We’re all in this life together.” We all suffer. We all deserve compassion. Reminding ourselves of this unblocks our capacity to care.
How Can You Respond?
Finally, a third block to compassion involves how we understand our own ability to respond. When someone who is suffering really needs help or support, we can feel overwhelmed. If we jump to the quick conclusion that we don’t have the resources or the time or the energy to respond, we stop compassion in its tracks. Remember the last time you said to yourself, “I just can’t handle this right now!” It probably wasn’t that long ago! Overcoming this block requires that we retrain our minds to pause, slow down when we feel overwhelmed, and remind ourselves that even a small gesture is enough. Compassion is sometimes easier than we think. We don’t have to solve the problem—in fact, often we can’t solve the issue that is creating suffering. But we can smile and offer a hug. We can write a card. We can offer to deliver a meal on the weekend or make some other compassion move. And all of these small moves make a big difference to someone in pain.
Many factors play into our automatic interpretations of suffering—including work experience, training, organizational culture, heritage, national culture, family traditions, position in the organization, and the implicit biases that we develop simply by internalizing stereotypes. And we all carry around internalized cultural assumptions about suffering that can block compassion.
Recognizing them, challenging them in ourselves, and becoming more aware of how to change them in our own minds and hearts is key to overcoming them and awakening compassion at work.