How to be Compassionate

Rasmus Hougaard
March 29, 2024
People hugging

If you’ve read this newsletter or practiced meditation with the Ten Percent Happier app, you’ve doubtless heard numerous teachers talk about the importance of compassion. But how do you actually develop it?

My colleagues and I have studied compassion extensively, in what may seem like a surprising context: the workplace. Work environments can make it hard to balance taking decisive action with acting with humanity and care. Yet the payoff for doing so is high: according to our research with 2000 global leaders across 15 industries, when leaders are able to do hard things in a human way, employee job satisfaction increases by 86%, job performance increases by 20%, and burnout decreases by 64%.

In our research, we worked to uncover what compassion really looks like in action, what skills one would need to develop it. We identified  four such skills: presence, courage, candor, and transparency. When practiced together and in this order, these four skills create a virtuous cycle that we call the Wise Compassion Flywheel. Here’s how it works.

1. Caring Presence: Be here now

When we are present, we are in the moment, giving the people around us our full attention. Unfortunately, that is not our default state. We are wired to be distracted and prone to act on autopilot with ingrained behaviors. As readers of this newsletter know, mindfulness is a useful way to counter this tendency, becoming more present with what is happening right now versus being distracted. Mindfulness also helps us to be present with ourselves, recognizing any traps that might get in our way, and to be present with others to tune in to what they are expressing but may or may not be saying. That foundation enables us to incorporate compassion into our interaction, and remember that the person in front of us deserves our respect, attention, care, and curiosity.

 2. Caring Courage: Courage over comfort

Once we are present, we can choose courage over comfort.  As human beings, we’re hardwired to embrace certainty and safety and to avoid danger and discomfort. In fact, sometimes we’ll do nearly everything we can to convince ourselves that staying in our comfort zone is the best thing to do. Yet compassion requires us to open up to others, to consider the difficult feelings we and they may be having. And that requires courage.   We might still experience fear about an uncomfortable interaction or the delivery of negative news, but we find the inner strength to overcome the fear and still engage in difficult situations with others. Courage is the willingness to move out of our comfort zones. When we open ourselves up to difficult emotions – our own or others – and not run away from them, the chance for human connection blossoms.

3. Caring Candor: Direct is faster

Having checked in with what is happening for you and for the other person, and having summoned up the courage to have a potentially difficult interaction, the third step is interacting with caring candor. This means being direct and straightforward, and it is always the fastest and most efficient way to engage in a conversation. Candor on its own can easily come across as brutal honesty, simply stating our unfiltered opinions. But with caring candor, you deliver the message in the most kind and direct way, which allows for the other person to receive it quickly and for the real conversation to begin. Caring candor is not a free pass to speak your mind with all the confusion that happens in a heated moment. It means being direct and decisive while also remaining authentically open to other people’s perspectives and demonstrating care for their emotions and well-being.

4. Caring Transparency: Clarity is kindness

Finally, caring transparency means getting ideas and thoughts out in the open—to make the invisible visible. It means being open and honest about what is on our minds and in our hearts. We strip away the power that often comes with knowledge and even the playing field. As a result, people know where they stand and what comes next. Transparency is distinct from candor in that you can be candid and still conceal information. When you are transparent, people know what is on your mind. And when you add caring to transparency, people also know what is in your heart.

When we start the journey towards greater compassion, using these four steps as our guide, we are present in our interactions with others, and we have the courage to show up with candor and transparency. And when we show up in this way, we make it possible for others to show up with presence, courage, candor, and transparency too. Over time, this compassionate way of being becomes our default, our expectation, the rule versus the exception.

Rasmus Hougaard is a meditation and mindfulness expert who has studied with the Dalai Lama. He is the CEO of Potential Project, which helps organizations to build more human and compassionate workplaces. The above is adapted from his most recent book, Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way by Harvard Business Review Press.

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