Compassion isn’t an emotion that comes naturally to me. On the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) Personality Assessment, I’m an ISTJ, and it’s those last two letters that get in my way. TJ’s are rational and logical versus emotional. We prefer to address problems objectively using data – create a pros and cons list, compare the options, make a decision – but that approach can overlook the human side of the equation and leave others bruised and battered.
I was also raised not to complain. My Dad used to say, “We all have our row to hoe,” and my Introverted mind turned that into “Everybody has problems and mostly people don't want to hear yours.” Combine my natural personality and my upbringing, and I became a person who didn’t share much about my feelings. With others, it was easy for me to tune out their problems and concerns. My running internal dialogue, or what we call my little voice, says “He needs to get that under control,” judging others for their feelings instead of stopping to understand and feel empathy for what they are going through.
I came face-to-face with my lack of compassion in our Transformational Leadership Program™ (TLP). In the TLP, participants receive 360° feedback from their leaders, peers and subordinates; armed with new knowledge, they take a close look at who they're being as a leader and how they impact others. For me, the feedback was that I wasn't very understanding at times. I was skipping over the “getting related” part of my relationships, holding back and not sharing about myself. My projects were moving, and I was getting things done, but I was achieving those successes at the cost of frayed bonds in my relationships with others. I was shocked by this new knowledge because I saw myself as kind and caring. It became clear to me that while I felt for others on the inside, I wasn’t allowing those feelings to shine through the way I wanted them to.
Soon after I completed the TLP, my Mom died suddenly. It was a very difficult experience for me and for an extended period of time, I couldn't control my emotional reactions anymore. I would cry in the grocery store with the checkout clerk, when sitting in the hairdresser’s chair, or during a team call with my colleagues. It was a new level of "raw" for someone like me who had always been so in control of emotional responses. It helped me to understand how others feel when they can’t control their emotions. And I realized I didn't want to hold back my feelings anymore. Instead, I needed to share, and in doing so, I could heal myself and benefit from the insights and assistance of others.
During that difficult time, I also learned by watching how others reacted to my emotional outbursts. Some were wonderfully supportive and caring, and during the conversation I felt heard and understood. Others would woodenly change the subject and when that happened, I left the exchange feeling hurt or angry. Over time I realized that in the past, I had been the second type of person – when emotion came up, I wanted to change the subject. But did I want to leave others hurt? I did not!
So, armed with this knowledge about myself, I crafted a new commitment to guide how I would interact with my colleagues, my coachees, my clients, and the people I encounter out in the world.
I am someone who is present, listens to and cares for this person in this moment.
Listen up coaches, people developers, supervisors - we need compassion to be effective as we mentor and develop others. The people we’re responsible for come to us with sticky situations and difficult issues. They are human beings with personal lives and work relationships to manage. We have to really care, and people have to feel it! If they don’t, the risk is that they won’t share with us, and then we can't help them.
So how can you tap into your compassionate side? Here are some practices that help me find the level of caring and listening required. And by the way, I practice this like crazy outside of work too.
- We say “put yourself in the other person's shoes” but what does that mean? Pretend it is happening to you and ask yourself, “how would I feel”?
- Don't be afraid of the emotional response that arises inside you. When someone shares an intimate, raw and upsetting experience and you truly bring it into your heart and mind, it hurts. It's supposed to hurt! When someone shares an exciting win, allow the flush of joy to rush over you. Notice those responses and be grateful for them. It’s okay to be a little overwhelmed, at least for a moment.
- Say “thank you” to people for sharing their feelings. Say “I’m honored by your trust in me to share that.” When you say, “thank you,” it counteracts the negative thoughts your little voice raises about oversharing or the messiness of others’ lives.
My little voice also says, "Don't ask - it's going to hurt," which I overcome with a mantra of "I'm grateful for the opportunity to feel."
- Let go of the judgment. When encountering the problems of others, my judgmental little voice says, "bad decision" or "I wouldn't have done that." With those ideas racing through my brain, I can easily stop caring or listening fully and intently. Instead, I have some statements I bring up in my mind like "I make mistakes, too" or "I've felt hurt or lost, also" or "It's hard to know how much something hurts or impacts you until you go through it yourself." Those counteracting ideas quiet the little voice so I can drop my judgment and bring my caring side.
I also return to my commitment. I am someone who is present, listens to and cares for this person in this moment. Getting centered around that idea helps me release the criticism I might be feeling during the interaction.
- It can be scary to face another’s emotions and for me, especially challenging because I’m not sure of the right thing to say. Lately though, I’m letting go of that fear because I don’t think there is a “right” thing to say to others – there’s “my thing” to say. They came to me because they trust me, like me, and want to hear from me. So, I drop my worry by assuring my little voice that we’ll figure it out together. Then, I open my ears to listen fully. I experience the emotion along with them. I say, “I'm sorry you went through that” or “I understand what you're going through” or maybe “I can see how challenging that must have been.” Then, I look inside to see what I have to offer as assistance. And sometimes, just listening and empathizing is enough.
I encourage you to take a look at how compassionate you’re being with your “charges” – the people you are responsible for helping and encouraging and growing – and identify where you could bring a more caring and understanding version of yourself to support them. Practice these ideas with your teenagers, the over-sharing clerk at the post office, or your neediest client. Caring for others has enriched my life through deeper connections with people. It has also softened my interactions, reducing irritation in my day-to-day life.
I’ve made a wonderful discovery as I have explored my compassionate side. When you open yourself up to people, they share both their pain and their joys. Exposing myself to the emotions of my colleagues and clients has brought me closer to their successes and triumphs as well. A flush of excitement rushes through me and my heart swells right along with theirs. And with that, I’m grateful to have become a person with an open heart, someone who is more comfortable with the natural human feelings we all have inside us.