Despite the rise of rudeness and incivility in politics and in society in general, compassion is making a strong comeback in business and leadership. What does it mean to be compassionate? And if you dedicated one full day to acts of compassion, what would you do differently?
To help my graduate students in Healthcare Administration at Trinity University get a better grasp of the concept of compassion, I gave them the following assignment (which was created by Scott Plous at Wesleyan University):
“Choose a day that will be your “Day of Compassion” and try your absolute best to live each minute of that day as compassionately as possible. In other words, for a full 24-hour period, you should do your best to reduce suffering of others, help those in need, be considerate and respectful, and avoid causing harm to any living being, including your classmates. When carrying out this assignment, leave no behavior unexamined -from watching TV to eating lunch to decisions about giving time or money to others. That is, don’t limit yourself to simply holding the door open for a stranger or petting a lonely dog; think about all the unnecessary suffering in the world, and strive for the greatest impact and deepest level of compassion without being phony or insincere. It is up to you to define what compassion is and to decide how best to realize it.”
Then, I asked them to reflect on their experiences in writing and provide examples, discuss benefits and obstacles, and explain how that day might impact their thoughts and actions in the future. While a couple of students did not warm up to the idea, the majority of the class took the assignment and ran with it. They enjoyed the experience and uncovered some valuable insights about themselves and their relationships with others. In this article, I will share some of their reflections (student names have been changed to protect confidentiality):
Prior to starting the assignment, a bit of mental preparation was needed for some students. Hannah recounted: “I decided that a part of being compassionate would mean adjusting my attitude. If I spent my day feeling strained and distracted by my work and errands, I would be stingy with my time and would not be able to give my full attention to the people in my life. The work will get done, it always gets done, but moments with people will pass. After this internal dialogue, I already felt better. Today would be my compassion day and I would do it happily.”
The majority of the students turned their attention to their family and friends, as well as to strangers that they met that day. Linda recounted how the simple act of calling a friend made a big difference: “I called friend who genuinely loves to be called on the phone but I hardly do it. I usually tell him it’s a time problem, but actually it’s a will problem. I don’t know why, but I just don’t like doing it. However, I know it means a lot to him and he had told me he recently started a new job, so I called him to check in. He appreciated it so much he almost started crying. I wish I understood the reason why I don’t like doing something so simple, especially when the impact is so much greater than the effort expended.”
Patricia reflected on how to balance giving time to friends with getting things done: “I found that compassion laughs at schedules, as you never plan for a friend or stranger to be in need. However, there are many benefits that should be considered. The first that comes to mind is the growth of positive relationships. I found that through this one day of compassion, I reconnected with an old friend, counseled a current friend, and made a new friend. Managing relationships is a challenge, and being as compassionate as possible made it a lot easier. I spent a few hours of my day talking with a friend about her current fears and challenges moving past her undergraduate life and feeling unsure of her future. As a thought like “I really need to go” popped into my head, I followed it quickly with “it’s not about me” and became a much better listener, which is who I needed to be in that moment. The next morning I woke up to a message from that friend saying how much are friendship means to her and that she felt much better after our talk, and knowing I was there for her. This is all to illustrate the many benefits of being compassionate. That single day changed someone else’s outlook on life for at least a moment, and strengthened a friendship that I will have for years to come.”
Similarly, Michael reflected on his efforts to listen to others: “Throughout my conversations, I realized that almost everyone I spoke with was struggling with something, whether it be living in a new place or recently going through a major life change. Instead of my natural tendency to insert myself into a problem and attempt to come up with a solution, I just listened. This proved to be surprisingly well received and appreciated with everyone that I spoke to, almost as if it were rare that someone else took an interest in their lives. While I thoroughly enjoyed my conversations, it made me feel guilty that I had not spoken to someone with only the intent of listening instead of talking about myself.”
While William tried to focus more on others, he found it a bit hard given his introverted nature: “Deliberately forcing myself to be more talkative and ask questions is how I approached showing compassion toward friends this weekend. As an introvert, this wore me out and by the end of the visit I was exhausted. Therefore, one important difference I wish to continue practicing is compassionate thoughts, which naturally turn into actions. In fact, I believe listening and being engaged with will bring out my natural compassion in the future. My new term for this is conscious compassion.”
Jennifer turned her attention to her behavior on the road: “I had to actively try to change my poor driving habits that have been ingrained in me for the past decade. During this brief commute, I realized how my self-centeredness translates into my behavior on the road. People have no idea where “I need to be” nor are they concerned that their speed limits do not meet my standards. As I reflected back on my day of compassion, I thought about all of the times during the week that I could be perceived as being self-centered and how I could change my behavior in the future.”
What were the benefits that the students reaped from their day of compassion? John wrote about the joy that he experienced: “In the process of being as compassionate as possible to everyone, I experienced a great sense of joy throughout the entire day. If the mind is focused on being compassionate to everyone, then it is not using that time to focus on stress or on negative things. This revelation was the most pronounced during the 24 hrs.”
Linda, on the other hand, discussed the importance of self-awareness: “This day of compassion was a good reminder of the benefits of being compassionate, which I think far outweigh the costs; if for no other reason than the compassion require constant self -reflection and awareness. Through the introspection required for genuine compassion, I realized that in the last few years I haven’t been the kind of person 8-year-old-me would be proud of (this is a metric I use to judge my success on) and it allowed me to ask myself “why” in a judgement-free moment of clarity.”
One common theme among the reflections is that being compassionate is not easy. In fact, it can be draining. Silvia used an interesting analogy: “I visualize my compassion on a daily basis as a full glass of water. With each action, a little bit of water gets poured out. Too many actions and the glass gets empty. For me, an empty glass is emotionally draining. It costs too much to empty it every day. How I would like to continue to be compassionate is to make the glass bigger so I can start with more water. I want start small by looking at one part of my life where I can be more compassionate. I would start with my personal life by helping my husband more around the house. For example, if he has had a long day at work, I would try and do more chores so that he can relax. Once I feel I have spent time learning compassion in that area, I would move on to helping others at school. With each small step, my glass gets bigger and more full so that I can eventually live my life as “Day of Compassion Me” every single day.”
Others reflected on how to balance compassion with holding others accountable. Melissa wrote: “Considering this, I think the benefits of being compassionate usually outweigh the costs. Compassion makes sure that everyone around you is comfortable and respected and has the smallest burden possible. However, I think a cost could be that people are not always held accountable for their actions, depending on a person’s definition of compassionate. For example, sometimes being “nice” to someone by not telling them they did something important wrong, might not actually be compassionate, in my opinion. The compassionate thing may be to politely explain what happened so that they can change their behavior next time. In my opinion, this would be truly respecting and caring for someone.”
In the process of helping my students learn more about compassion, I ended up learning a few things from them. There is a deep underlying relationship between compassion, happiness and love. When we feel compassion to others, we are choosing to turn away from a superficial focus on our own happiness to sense the true emotion and conditions of others. When we are compassionate, we put our happiness and our schedules on hold and we focus on others’ happiness.
As they reflected on their interactions with friends, family and strangers, I hope to have inspired these future healthcare leaders to think about they will apply compassion in their professional lives. As the latest evidence shows, the best leaders are those that use emotional and social intelligence skills to renew themselves, create positive relationships, and foster a healthy, vibrant environment to engage others toward a common goal. They do this through compassion and selflessness. They listen, they reach out, and they help others, while holding them accountable for their actions and performance.