August 11, 2014 — John van Bladel
Compassion is a practically acquired knowledge, like dancing.
You must do it and practice diligently day by day.
As a psychology instructor at FM, some of my teachings focus on compassion. What is compassion? Compassion is the wish to relieve the suffering of others. It begins with the experience of empathy, the intellectual and emotional identification with another’s situation. It is the experience of “putting yourself in another person’s shoes.” Is it in our nature to be compassionate towards each other? Research continues to accumulate indicating we are wired for compassion and cooperation. Can we learn to regulate the fight or flight response, originating in our old brain, by engaging our executive function through training in the practice of compassion? Instead of meeting force with force, what if we are trained to resolve our conflicts in a manner which creates win-win situations? Instead of winning battles, what if we commit to a program focused on bringing out the best in each other?
Compassion is enhanced when we understand that when people behave in ways that cause harm it indicates they are suffering. When we perceive someone experiencing difficulty we have a number of choices regarding how to respond. We can return what they have offered us, or we can take a breath, understand the other person’s suffering is what is causing their behavior, and respond with understanding and compassion. Asserting ourselves from this perspective often fosters more positive dialogue when attempting to address the issue at hand.
Practicing compassion requires a great deal of skill and courage. It is not easy to experience another person’s suffering especially if it is in an area that is difficult for us. Most of us are capable of doing it, albeit selectively. Social cues often guide us. Common concerns are: will kindness and compassion be mistaken for weakness opening us up to harm? Can I reach my full potential in a competitive world by being compassionate?
While teaching, a typical challenge I have experienced is students having private conversations during class while I am facilitating a discussion. I ask them to join us and occasionally they continue their conversations. Sometimes I find this distracting and start to get angry. I may perceive them as being disrespectful and also feel diminished on some level. I feel vulnerable. So how do I respond? I can “call them out” in front of the class, returning the same “slight” I felt. I can wonder what might be going on with them today and how I felt when I was in their shoes as a new student, applying empathy and compassion to formulate a response. Why should I have to do this? Well, perhaps developing self-awareness, or emotional intelligence, is what is really called for if students are to be successful. It is part of their education.
Can we develop effective learning communities and workplaces based on the principle of compassion? Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s “Enlightenment Engineer,” has developed an approach for enhancing emotional intelligence that includes mindfulness training that assists people in developing a compassionate workplace. This includes supporting people in reaching their potential, being happy at work and happy as individuals. One of his exercises is to simply imagine two human beings and just wish for them to be happy. What might our days be like if we invested in each other in such a manner? Give it a try and see if anything changes.
John van Bladel is a Psychology Instructor.