How Compassion Helps You Be Brave During Conflict and Flexible During Change

Empathy continues to be a popular topic partly because of the common assumption that if leaders could only learn to empathize with employees’ and other stakeholders’ situations, they would be more understanding. Then, as the thinking goes, relationships between bosses and their direct reports—and between executive teams and workforces—would naturally improve. But I’m not so sure that’s true. It can be valuable to understand the way someone else feels about a situation and to see it from their point of view, but it’s not enough. 

The Problem with Empathy

Let’s say several of your team members tell you about personal problems affecting their work, like their ability to be present on time, to concentrate, or to handle their responsibilities. Empathy might help you feel sad or bad for these colleagues, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you will—or can—change things to accommodate them. So you might simply feel bad for them. 

And sometimes, when you keep feeling bad for someone while you continue trying to overlook the problems they’re creating for you, you may become resentful—even though you understand completely why they come late to meetings or miss their deadlines. You might wonder why you should have to feel bad all the time when their problems are not your own. And you may feel even more stressed by competing feelings of empathy for multiple subordinates facing challenges, and therefore find yourself feeling trapped about how to make things better for any of them since, after all, the work still needs to be done on time.

Empathy vs. Compassion

So sometimes empathy just isn’t enough. Compassion, on the other hand, helps you look beyond the specifics of the person in front of you and try to come up with a solution to help them.

It can seem that if we improve our relationship with another person, the conflict or problem we’re having with them will go away. But often that doesn’t work—we can be in conflict even with our friends and loved ones. This is why practicing compassion is more effective: it works whether or not you want to improve the relationship. Having compassion means being willing to take action to foster more good in general for everyone, and it neutralizes your negative feelings about (or against) someone or something. 

Compassion is powerful, not soft. It’s not about feeling sorry, which can be incapacitating. It’s about gearing up for improvement because you aren’t willing to continue living with a bad situation, even if making a change makes you feel worried or nervous. Compassion helps you be willing to experiment even if your perception is that the odds of success aren’t very good.

Moving Toward Mutual Progress

So instead of feeling upset and avoidant about the problem—or enduring the stress of an ongoing or impending conflict, as if you have to keep gearing yourself up for battle—you can apply compassion as a tool to improve the situation. Start by wondering what the other person is thinking or feeling and how things could improve for them. Consider the position or stance you’re taking and whether you’re actively involved in the conflict or problem. If you are, how much of it is actually necessary and which parts are merely your preference? Are there other ways you could be satisfied with the resolution? 

Start by thinking about yourself in the third person, if you can, in order to neutralize some of your feelings and see if you can expand your options. Next, refocus on your “opponent” or your problem, but instead of thinking about them as your enemy or an intractable situation, consider every possible larger goal, purpose, or value that you might hold in common. By concentrating on the shared outcome, you can think of your colleague as more of a partner than an opponent. If you can see things from their perspective with compassion and try to understand why they’re reacting the way they are, you may even be able to avoid taking their differences personally or accept those differences as evidence about how strongly they feel about the thing they care about. 

Compassion Lets You Aim for a Double Win

Similarly, if you continually find yourself fantasizing about how you want to win and for your colleague to lose, think instead about your potential mutual gains. Perhaps you can get support for both of you from someone else who’s in a position to help—your boss, another leader, or someone else in the company who can help solve whatever technical problem is currently a barrier. Instead of fixating on a full-on win of everything you’d hoped to get, think about how you could both win a little, and then keep moving in that direction. 

Talk through your options together, including the smallest things you could do in cooperation. By staying focused on those gains, you may find yourself more willing to take steps that you otherwise would avoid, possibly out of fear of loss. Although it may be too hard to confront the entire thorny situation at once, try to find small pieces you can comfortably shift.

Compassion can help you continue to move things forward when you’re uncomfortable, rather than just feeling bad for the people involved—or just bad in general.

Onward and upward—

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