The power of practicing compassion

9 Apr 2019

Practising compassion

Kristina Barger, a cognitive scientist, coach and friend of Unmind, writes about the importance of compassion and how it can have a positive impact on your own wellbeing as well as on others around you.‍

We can probably all agree that compassion is a noble emotion. But, did you know that compassion can also function as a building block for wellness and performance? Practicing compassion can be a tool we use to improve not just our own mood and performance, but the performance and mood of teams we belong to or lead.

Compassion for wellness and performance

Imagine a coworker fails to finish his part of a joint task, making extra work for you. When you ask about it, he mumbles a lame excuse and hurries off. You may find yourself spiralling into mental criticism of his manners, work ethic or even character. You likely feel frustrated, angry or offended at his audacity for thinking his time is worth more than yours. You may even complain of these thoughts and feelings to another coworker.

But, what if you found out that this coworker had a loved one who was recently hospitalized with serious illness? Or a friend or family member who attempted suicide? Perhaps there is trouble at home? What if you paused to take a closer look and notice that he seems tired and a bit withdrawn? Perhaps some of your indignation would subside and you would feel a flood of compassion, imagining all that he must be going through. You may then think that although the increased workload is annoying, it isn’t because your coworker is a selfish person who doesn’t consider you. Rather he is a person in distress, trying to do his part, but unable to manage quite as well as he might like.

As you consider this new possibility, your frustration may subside and your negative feelings and tension fade away, allowing you to feel calmer and happier. As a result, you are able to focus more on the work that needs to be done. This improved focus increases your productivity and decreases your workload, which keeps another bit of stress at bay. Reducing frustration can have a domino effect that frees up mental space from processing negative emotions and gives you more cognitive bandwidth to do better work. You are now likely to be faster, more accurate and even more creative.

The benefits don’t end with you though. We don’t often think about the ripple effects of our moods and behavior and how they affect those around us. But, our feelings slip out in our behaviors and expressions and can be contagious to those around us. We are likely calm, supportive and engaging when happy, or short, terse and distracted when annoyed. Our moods and micro-behaviours can facilitate or exacerbate our interactions, having a knock on effect on our ability to get along smoothly with others and work together effectively.

A guide to practicing mindful compassion

One highly effective way of practicing compassion is linked to mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). When you feel criticism and negativity rising, pause for a moment and notice your thoughts and feelings. Try to think of potential alternative explanations for someone’s behaviour. What if this person is suffering in some way that she doesn’t feel comfortable disclosing to you? What if there is a good, or at least understandable, reason for their less than perfect behavior? Would you perhaps do the same in her position? Might you perhaps intend to do better in such a situation, but be unable because of the weight of the difficult situation you found yourself in? Do you feel calmer now that you have considered some other explanations?

Practicing compassion this way allows you to distance yourself from your emotions. That distance takes control away from your emotions and gives it back to you, so that you can choose which emotional experience you want to invest your thoughts and actions in. And, remember, investing in your own wellness has a ripple effect on those around you. This means that not only do you feel better and perform better, your coworkers, friends and family will too.

Acting on compassion

What if you went a step further and took the opportunity to act from a place of compassion? Think back to the coworker who let you down in our imagined scenario and caused so much frustration. What if you acted on your feelings of compassion and offered to support him in some small way? You could show him that you forgive him by noting that he seems tired and that you are happy to help out. You could extend a gesture of support and ask if everything is ok. Or, you could normalize his stress by mentioning, in a warm and friendly way, that you know how it is when things build up, because we’ve all had tough times. If you don’t want to call attention to his stress level, you could follow the example in the cartoon above, and give him a kind and sincere compliment.

Humans are social creatures and altruism research shows we feel better when we show kindness to others. Any of these things are likely to give both you and your coworker a quick boost. But, more than that, you have demonstrated sensitivity in a time of need, when your coworker likely expects further negativity and stress. These small gestures of understanding and support are the building blocks for trust and stronger relationships. Because of your kindness, your coworker will likely be less defensive in future. And just like that, by taking a quick moment to reframe your mental narrative and reaching out to someone with compassion, you can decrease your stress level and help build a foundation of trust and positivity that improves both your wellbeing and your ability to work together with your coworkers.

Life will always have its ups and downs, but we are all in it together, to one degree or another. You may never know what is causing another person’s distress, but practicing compassion is a powerful way to have a positive impact on yourself and others.

Find out more about Kristina here.

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