Compassion — The Heart’s Response to Suffering

October 18, 2013

By: Camille Piner

“There is always pain in the room.” – Frost

Last month, Jane Dutton kicked off the Positive Links Speaker Series by sharing her research on compassion. She defined compassion as, “the heart’s response to suffering.” More specifically, a process that involves noticing, feeling, interpreting, and responding to pain.

Interestingly, humans are predisposed towards compassion. So we are born to notice and respond to suffering, rather than to turn away from it. However, far too often, employees can get wrapped up in their work and forget that coworkers are also people.

What Jane said that resonated with me the most was that suffering is pervasive. She quoted Frost’s, “There is always pain in the room.” This is a simple but powerful statement. Even though we may not always be thinking about it, there is most likely always somebody suffering near us. And in organizations, you might not know which of your coworkers is hurting. If you haven’t already caught on, this is why compassion is relevant and necessary to every group of people, and why it can make an extremely positive difference.

During the session, we broke into small groups. Jane asked us to think of a time when we observed compassion in the workplace and to share with each other. A woman at my table shared a story about when she first transferred to her job. While working, she received a call that her grandma died, and was naturally overwhelmed and upset. She knew she wasn’t in a state to work, but didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask her boss for the day off. One of her coworkers noticed her crying, and reached out to her. He went to her boss because he had been working there longer and was more comfortable asking. The boss let her take the day off, and she still remembers this small act of compassion from her coworker three years later, and cites it as the beginning of the valuable and trusting relationship that developed between them.

So how do I find an organization to work for that fosters compassion among its employees? Jane’s research tells us to look for the following things:

1. Routines matter. What an organization does on a regular basis can speak to their value of compassion, so things like rewarding helping behaviors or having a system for notifying others of harm so people can reach out to support. 2. Shared values matter. Especially when those values include a holistic view of employees which values them as a person in addition to as a worker. 3. High quality connections that are brief, yet positive and meaningful, matter. 4. Legitimization of compassionate roles, such as counselors, coaches, or friends that support us matter. 5. Look to leadership. If those in power model things like noticing, feeling, and responding to pain, compassion is probably valued in their organization as well.

And what can we do at the individual level to foster compassion? We can notice. We can inquire. We can empathize. We can listen. Jane said that you don’t need to solve the problem, but just need to be with the sufferer. Doing these things can go a long way in making coworkers feel supported and appreciated, (as in my example), and fostering thriving in the workplace in general. My question is, do you think we can be compassionate even without obvious suffering present? Let’s try it.