C-Suite — “C” is for compassion

The current 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, along with business thinker and psychologist Daniel Goleman, explores the science and power of compassion and its role in addressing the world’s most intractable problems in Goleman’s recently published book, A Force for Good.

Compassion vs. empathy in the workplace?

There’s an important difference between the two. In another blog post of ours about empathy and its role in emotional intelligence, we describe Goleman’s definition of the three kinds of empathy that are important to a leader’s emotional intelligence:

  1. Cognitive empathy – the ability to understand another person’s point of view
  2. Emotional empathy – the ability to feel what someone else feels
  3. Empathetic concern – the ability to sense what another person needs from you

As Goleman goes on to explain to HBR’s Andrea Ovans in a recent interview about his book, compassion makes the difference between understanding and caring:

Compassion takes empathy further. When you feel compassion, you feel distress when you witness someone else in distress – and because of that you want to help the other person.

I think that in the workplace, that attitude has a hugely positive effect, whether it’s in how we relate to our peers or how we are as a leader, or how we relate to clients and customers. A positive disposition toward another person creates the kind of resonance that builds trust and loyalty and makes interactions harmonious. And the opposite of that – when you do nothing to show that you care – creates distrust, disharmony, and causes huge dysfunction at home and in business.

How Do We Cultivate Compassion?

Compassion has become a burning research issue among neuroscientists at high profile academic institutions, where methodologies for increasing compassion are being tested.

While there’s a trend toward recognizing the importance of the role of mindfulness in developing emotional intelligence and incorporating its practice into the workplace as we discuss in another blog post, there’s data from the Max Planck Institute that shows there’s no automatic boost in compassion from mindfulness alone.

Nonetheless, the traditional Buddhist method on which mindfulness in the workplace is based, links the two in a fundamental meditation practice called Tonglen, described here by Pema Chodron in her book, When Things Fall Apart, in which you visualize taking onto yourself the suffering of others on your in-breath, and on your out-breath, giving happiness and success to all sentient beings. In other words, mindfulness practice is practiced in a context in which you also cultivate compassion.

Goleman describes example of this same meditation approach in a program at Stanford that has the effect of priming the circuitry responsible for compassion within the brain, so you’re more inclined to act that way when the opportunity arises.

Begin with Self-Compassion

Remember, compassion also includes yourself. In fact, and again from the Buddhist perspective, our ability to feel compassion for others starts with cultivating compassion for ourselves – this is the starting point to what makes us able to cultivate it and offer it to others.