Research Paper By L’Shawn Howard
(Academic Coach, JAPAN)
Compassion is often understood to be synonymous to pity, empathy, or a warm feeling we have toward another when we notice their suffering. However, compassion can be much more than an emotional reaction to another person’s suffering. For me, compassion has been a powerful force in my life that has allowed me to connect with others. To me, it is more than a reaction or a feeling; it is a window into the true nature of things. As social animals, we are deeply connected, and we must treat one another with loving kindness because if any of us suffer, it affects us all. I believe strongly that if we all approached each other with compassion, we would minimize our conflicts and suffering. Compassion as a mindset is an integral part of my coaching. Through this project, I aim to define the compassionate approach that I take in my coaching as it relates to other concepts of compassion. A review of definitions of compassion from psychology, philosophy, and religion reveal four main concepts of compassion: compassion as a process, a connection, a moral force, or a cognition. Each concept will be discussed in turn. Although not all concepts of compassion can be applied to coaching, certain aspects of each concept can be combined to create a useful tool for effective coaching, which I call the compassionate approach. I believe the compassionate approach can be used as a powerful tool to connect with the client, see the bigger picture, and maintain a distance from the client’s story.
Compassion as a Process
Scientific notions of compassion usually define it as an effective process. This process involves three factors: 1) the individual notices the other’s suffering; 2) the individual reacts to the other’s suffering, and 3) the individual feels compelled to act to alleviate the suffering. In this definition, empathy plays a role, but it is not synonymous to compassion. An individual would need to feel empathy toward the person suffering to be compelled to do something to alleviate the suffering. A key component of compassion in this definition is action. Usually, compassion results in some sort of action on the part of the experiencer (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, 2018).
Compassion as Connection
In terms of human relationships, many have defined compassion as a connector between people. In her article, “What is Compassion and How Can It Improve My Life?” Beverly Engle (2008) describes compassion not only as a desire to alleviate another person’s suffering but also as an ability to see the best in another person. This ability allows us to connect with the other person. She explains that when we see the best in others, we interpret their strange or unusual behavior as benevolent or benign. For example, if a good friend fails to stop and say hello to us, we don’t automatically assume they’ve snubbed us. Rather, we think they are particularly busy or preoccupied and do not take their behavior personally. This allows us to think well of the person and maintain our strong ties with them. In terms of organizations and professional relationships, compassion manifests as treating one’s clients, coworkers, and subordinates with human warmth and decency. In medicine, social work, and education, being compassionate means caring for others and treating them with human decency and respect. In an article about compassion in the social work, educational, and medical industries, Christina Patterson (2012) recounts several speeches given at a conference for medical, social work and educational professionals in England. In her retelling of the many speeches she heard at the conference, the professionals who spoke about compassion explained that it allowed them to connect with their patients, clients, and coworkers on deeper more human level suggesting that compassion is closely related to the connection.
In his book, The Relationship Handbook: A Simple Guide to Satisfying Relationships, George S. Pransky (2001) argues that compassion allows us to see the insecure state of mind the other person is in that motivates their unpleasant or disagreeable behavior. He uses the example of a parent comforting a screaming child who is suffering from a painful illness. He writes that the parent only thinks about the child’s suffering, and the parent’s heart goes out to his or her child because he or she wants to stop the child’s suffering. In contrast, when the parent and child are at the hospital, the child’s screaming annoys and irritates the other people. Pransky argues that these people do not have compassion for the child; they are only concerned about how the child’s incessant and shrill cries affect them. Compassion allows the parent to interpret the child’s cries as pleas for help rather than a source of irritation because the parent is only concerned with the child’s wellbeing and making the child comfortable. When we are concerned with the wellbeing of another person, we can forget about our own needs and discomfort and connect with the other person. In these examples, compassion serves as a force that connects others on a deeply human level.
Compassion as a Moral Code or Force
In the above examples, compassion is largely a feeling or a reaction to another person’s suffering or discomfort. From a Buddhist point of view, compassion is related to the wisdom and knowledge of what is real. It is based on the four noble truths that Shakyamuni Buddha taught, which are 1) life is suffering, 2) the suffering is caused by ignorance and the misunderstanding of our true natures and the belief in a “self”, 3) the suffering can cease, and 4) there is a way to end the suffering. Compassion is not a feeling; it is a moral force. In the same way that the crying child in Pransky’s example does not irritate the parent, those who behave poorly or cruelly are seen to be suffering and therefore are met with compassion in the Buddha’s eyes. From a Buddhist’s perspective, we are all suffering and we are all ignorant of the true cause of our suffering. In her comparison of the western definition of compassion to the eastern definition, Goetz (2004) explains that the Buddhist idea of compassion is cold and can even be seen as cruel. The compassionate person gives the sufferer what he or she needs and not necessarily what he or she wants, and this can sometimes be interpreted as unkind. Buddhists believe that compassion is a noble trait that comes with the wisdom and knowledge of the true nature of things. According to many Buddhist practitioners, when we are wise, and we know the four noble truths, treating our fellow humans with compassion is the most logical way to behave.
Compassion as a Cognition
This brings us to the idea of compassion as a cognition. Compassion in the Buddhist sense is cognition or knowledge of our true nature. It is the knowledge that life is suffering and that this suffering is caused by our ignorance and belief in a self. Compassion is the antidote to that ignorance and suffering. Focusing on the other and cherishing the other is a way out of suffering. So, in this sense, Buddhists believe that compassion serves to diminish and, in some cases, eliminate the self, because according to the second noble truth, there is no ‘self,’ and believing in the ‘self’ is the cause of all suffering. Compassion is a mindset that de-emphasizes the self and allows the individual to experience life without concern for him or herself. This selflessness from a Buddhist’s perspective is noble and right because there is no self. In other words, there is essentially no entity that we need to protect from suffering or to make happy; essentially there is no experiencer only the experience. When we experience compassion, we completely lose sight of ourselves and are present in the moment experiencing concern and love for the other’s well-being and comfort.
Compassion and Effective Coaching
If you look at compassion not as a reaction or a feeling but rather as a mindset or an approach to the human condition, it can be a powerful tool for coaches and their clients. Referring to Patterson’s article on compassion in the medicine, social work, and education, the overarching theme in her retelling of the speeches at the conference was that when these professionals performed their work with compassion, the people they served did better, and their quality of life improved.
When seen as a force, compassion can be channelled into a superpower that has many benefits to the coaching process, the coachee, and the coach.
Focus on the client rather than the story
If we return to Pransky’s example of the parent and the sick child, we can see how a compassionate mindset can help the coach focus on the client. Like the parent focusing only on the well being of the child and not on the irritating quality of the child’s screams, with a compassionate mind, a coach can be singly focused on the client and his or her well being. It is difficult for the coach to feel self-conscious or to be concerned with his or her own agenda when they view the client with compassion. In this way, the coach can focus on the client as a whole person, knowing that focusing on the client’s state of mind and internal conditions will allow the coach to better partner with the client as they work towards a satisfactory outcome for the client.
Make stronger, deeper connections with the client
Compassion also allows us to connect with and be present with the client. When we are compassionate, we think of the other person, rather than ourselves. Our sense of self is minimized. In this way, we become observers of the client’s situation, and we can be more present with our clients as we perceive and seek to understand our client’s feelings, values, beliefs, and motivations. We are also less attached or completely detached from our observations and perceptions as we offer them to our client to help further their learning. The compassionate mindset allows the coach to dance at the moment with the client because they are completely focused on the client with little or no concern for themselves and whether they are performing well; instead the coach is focused on partnering with the client to reach a satisfactory outcome and to co-create strategies that allow the client to have a satisfying life.
Coach “difficult” clients with ease
It is not always the case that we coach works with ideal clients. Sometimes we might find ourselves working with a client whose personality clashes with ours, who is not following through on their commitments or does not seem to be making much progress. When these situations arise, a compassionate mindset can shield the coach from the negative effects of such challenging situations. The compassionate mindset minimizes the self; this means that the individual who feels compassion for another person has little or no concern about him or herself and how that person’s behavior affects them. In fact, it can be argued that nothing the person does short of physically attacking the compassionate person, can disturb the compassionate person because that person is focused on the insecure and agitated state of mind of the other that motivates that person’s behavior. The compassionate coach only feels concern for the person, because the compassionate mindset allows the coach to see the client in a wider context. The coach understands that we all get lost in our own thoughts and make foolish or counter-productive decisions when we are in a low mood or feeling insecure. The compassionate coach understands and appreciates the human condition and is therefore patient with his or her client. This allows the coach to be singly focused on collaborating with the client to seek new and better avenues with the client leading the way. The compassionate coach is confident in the coaching process and in the client’s ability and willingness to make changes in his or her life. Furthermore, the compassionate coach is patient with the client, knowing that change takes time.
Compassion: Humanity’s superpower
As humans, we possess the capacity to show empathy and to approach our fellow humans with a compassionate mindset. Compassion can be misunderstood by many to be a feeling of pity or sympathy, but such a point of view can lead us to underestimate the power of compassion. When used as an approach to life and a perspective on the human condition, compassion can be a superpower that allows the coach to focus on the client as a whole person, connect with the client on a deeper level, and partner with the client while patiently working with him or her as he or she creates a satisfying and fulfilling life for him or herself.
Center for Compassion and Altruism Research. http://ccare.stanford.edu/research/wiki/compassion-definitions/compassion/Retrieved September 7, 2018
Engle, B. (2008). What is Compassion and How Can It Improve My Life. Psychology, Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-compassion-chronicles/200804/what-is-compassion-and-how-can-it-improve-my-life Retrieved September 7, 2018.
Goetz, J. (2004) Research on Buddhist Conceptions of Compassion: An Annotated Bibliography. Greater Good Magazine: Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life. Retrieved September 7, 2018.
Patterson, C. (2012). The Science of Compassion. Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/the-science-of-compassion-8376224.html Retrieved on September 7, 2018
Pransky, G. S. (2001). The Relationship Handbook: A simple guide to satisfying relationships. Second Edition. Pransky and Associates. La Conner, Washington.