Why I took a class about compassion

and what I learned

Part 1: How it started

We often take for granted that we know what compassion is and how it works. When I share that I recently attended compassion training people either chuckle or act like I didn’t say anything. But there are many who are curious about what I learned and how it has had a profound impact on my life. 

Holding a heart for compassion

How it started

My journey to compassion didn’t start as most people’s do while on a quest for self-compassion or to improve relationships with others. I started on my journey by wanting to make organizations better for customers. 

I always felt that companies needed to emotionally connect with customers through their experiences to build an established relationship with them and a community. But something about the empathy discussion didn’t exactly work for me. Whenever I gave a talk on empathy, somehow compassion made its way into the presentation. I never clearly stated that one or the other was the answer to engage with customers better. And that made my talks confusing. Most friends or colleagues that heard these talks in draft form said I should choose compassion not just because empathy sparks compassion, but because compassion better reflects the experience that I was trying to communicate. I wanted businesses to see and solve people’s problems. And that’s what compassion is. 

Further, all the research by psychologists I read noted how empathy wasn’t a useful endpoint. Psychologist Paul Bloom wrote a book called Against Empathy, making the case supporting compassion in society over empathy alone. His point was that empathy is a shared feeling that doesn’t call people to action. Compassion does. 

Harvard Business Review published the findings of a study by Imperial College’s Johannes Hattula that disputed using empathy in marketing. “The more empathetic managers were, the more they used their personal preferences to predict what customers would want. Another key finding that should get people’s attention is that the more empathetic the managers were, the more they ignored the market research on customers that we provided them.” So empathy isn’t as much of a true connection as much as an imagined connection. Ouch. So much for “empathy.”

But this is consistent with the definition of empathy: the act of coming to experience the world as you believe someone else does. And in so many ways, this definition of empathy becomes a type of paradox. How do you know how someone is experiencing the world unless you are curious about their experience? Or unless you know them personally? Or you have had a similar emotional experience that allows you to connect to their emotional experience? Otherwise, in all cases, what you believe to be empathy may be you experiencing what you think they are experiencing. And unless we have telepathy, you may be wrong about what you think someone else is feeling.

And from my experience, people are often wrong about their perception of other people’s feelings. (And this is an entirely separate issue.) 

If you don’t feel empathy for someone and their situation, or if you don’t express the right type of empathy because there are three kinds – cognitive, compassionate, and emotional empathy -- does that make you a bad person? Does that make a marketer or customer service rep bad at their jobs because they aren’t feeling “it” for their customers? No. Most certainly not. We are humans. We don’t always like everyone or “feel the feels” about them in different situations. 

However, marketing and customer experience leaders keep saying, “we all need to have more empathy for our customers and employees.” There has been overwhelming pressure to lean towards general empathy, and although empathy sparks compassion to solve problems, empathy alone doesn’t seem to really accomplish anything. Compassion is the better answer because it includes action. It’s a nit, but a substantial nit. It’s why I decided to pursue the path to learning more about compassion.

To be compassionate, you need to take time to listen to others, and be curious about their experiences to build a connection. Then once you feel a spark of sympathy or compassion, that can prompt you to take action to solve their problems. To me, that more accurately reflects what customer service, marketing, and product teams should be doing and what many already do today. 

So why don’t we rally around this?  

There is a book about how to incorporate compassion at work titled Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations by Monica Worline and Jane E. Dutton. It includes inspiring examples of work environments that embrace compassion and show how straightforward and feasible it can be to do. Teams could use a process at work that embraces a compassionate approach to remind them how to behave kindly towards customers if they were having a rough day. It would remind them to slow down or maybe take a break to listen to others and feel their feelings. It would remind them that their colleagues are people, just like them, who just want to be happy. But the opportunities to feel empathy and sympathy to spark a compassionate action need to be included in the construction of an employee, customer process, or experience to remind people to be human.

Next: What drove me to self-compassion