What is a compassionate conversation? And can it really make a difference?

In our everyday lives there are occasions when we can easily miss the opportunity to take action in support of others. Not because we don’t care. More often than not, because we simply didn’t pause and take notice. So, compassionate conversations start from a simple, but critical point. The capacity to pay attention. And when this awareness is combined with our instinctive empathic concern and empathic understanding of peoples’ needs, our responses and actions will be experienced as supportive and compassionate.

Several years ago, I was on my way to a conference, and apart from the late running of the train, my journey was uneventful. Yet on arriving at the venue I was feeling slightly uncomfortable about something but I couldn’t quite work out what. And then it dawned on me. I was at the conference to speak about kindness in leadership, and in particular how we can bring empathy into our everyday work and lives. And that morning, being totally focused on getting to the venue on time, I hadn’t fully appreciated that a colleague I had spoken with that morning was in need of some support and I hadn’t engaged with them. In that moment, I felt like a bit of a fraud. How could I, someone who is committed to building a compassionate world for all, fail to notice the someone needed my help?

This personal account is a reminder that in our everyday lives there are occasions when we can so easily miss the opportunity to take action in support of others. Not because we don’t care. More often than not, it’s because we simply didn’t pause and take notice. So, compassion and compassionate conversations start from a simple, but critical point. The capacity to pay attention to what is going on around us. Whether it is about listening with our full attention, or taking the time to find out what is concerning the people around us, our compassion starts with taking the time to be awareness of another’s difficulties or ‘suffering’.

Yet this awareness alone this is not enough for our response to be described as compassionate. We next need to feel a concern for the welfare of the other person. Evidence shows that how we feel toward another makes a difference. In practice, if we feel a sense of warmth toward someone, even a stranger, we are more likely to feel connected and motivated to want to help. And if we combine our empathic concern for another with an empathic understanding of the person’s needs, our responses and actions will be experienced as supportive and compassionate.

This sounds simple. And it is. The challenge is remembering to cultivate our natural instinct for compassion toward our fellow beings.

But what difference does being compassionate really make in the workplace? Well the evidence is pretty compelling. For example, kindness and compassion is strongly associated with trust. And workplace trust is a vital component in effective team working and interpersonal relationships. Compassion has also been associated with improved business performance as well as effective and ethical leadership. In short, building a compassionate culture is not only good for our health and happiness, but it seems that it is good for business too.

The encouraging news is that there is a growing body of research and numerous practical strategies that can enhance our compassionate responses to the needs of others, including in how we communicate on a day to day basis. Below are just a few examples of principles that can help us learn how to develop our instinct for compassion and ultimately to contribute to building a better world:

  1. Check your intentions – compassionate conversations happen when we want to have a meaningful and constructive conversation with someone. If, however we are motivated to want to get the conversation over as quickly as possible, either because we feel uncomfortable, or we don’t like the person we are speaking with, then don’t be surprised if the encounter is unsatisfactory. Ask yourself, what is my intention in this conversation? How am I feeling? Do I care about this person? This doesn’t mean that we can only say nice things to people. What it does mean is that when we speak to another we do so with authenticity, and, even if we are needing to share critical feedback to another, it will come from a place of care rather than a place of judgement.


  1. Be self-compassionate – The foundation of compassion for others is with how we treat ourselves. Some people get concerned that self-compassion is too self-indulgent, self-centred and a distraction from supporting others. However, the evidence suggests the opposite. By treating ourselves with kindness, including the type of internal dialogue we have with ourselves when we make mistake or feel bad, we increase, not decrease, our capacity for kindness to others, including toward strangers.


  1. Make the time to listen – this sounds like a rather obvious point, but in my experience crucial. In our modern busy lives, it is easy to see how we might overlook the needs of others because of time pressures. The fear is that if we ask a question or get involved we may not have the time or capacity to respond to the person’s needs. This could be true. But until we know what the person’s needs are, aren’t we simply basing our actions on an assumption? And we could also be unwittingly giving the impression that their needs don’t matter and we don’t care.


  1. Increase your distress tolerance – compassion fatigue is a term I’ve come across from time to time, and raises peoples’ concerns that it is possible to be too compassionate. However, the research shows that what we call compassion fatigue is actually empathy fatigue, and there is a subtle but important difference. What neuroscience is showing us is that when we are exposed to the suffering of others several different parts of the brain light up. Our empathy circuits are activated and we literally experience the suffering of others. Also, our compassionate mind is stimulated and is linked to acts of kindness and altruism. However, if our empathic response is too intense, we experience personal distress and our compassionate mind is overshadowed. When we experience personal distress we natural act to reduce these intense feeling either by moving away from the source of our distress or supressing these unpleasant feelings. Empathy fatigue arises from frequent exposure to personal distress. Increasing our distress tolerance enables us not only to reduce the risk of empathy fatigue, but also increases the likeliness of connecting with our compassionate mind and altruistic actions. The great news is that there are many simple and effective ways that we can learn that can reduce the intensity of empathic distress. For example, from the work of Kristin Neff and others we know that increases in mindfulness lead to improved emotional regulation strategies entailing a balanced awareness with one’s ongoing emotional experience, without the need to either suppress or express it.


  1. Recognise our shared humanity – on the whole it is easy to be kind to someone we care about. Where we might be less consistent in our compassion is when faced with responding to the needs of a stranger. There is an old saying that goes ‘A stranger is simply a friend you’ve yet to make’.  In practice, the evidence suggests that the more that we recognise our interconnectedness and shared humanity the more likely we are to help a stranger. Even more importantly, what we have discovered is that spending time with people who are different that ourselves in some way, whether those difference are cultural, physical or social, enhances our sense of shared humanity and increases the likelihood of us helping strangers.  In short, the greater our exposure to diversity the more likely we are to help a stranger.


  1. Learn how be a different kind of bystander – sometimes we don’t act not because we didn’t want to, but because we didn’t know how to. The great news is that there are simple strategies we can learn to help us move from being a ‘passive’ to an ‘active’ bystander. For example, an empathetic reflection and an offer of support, ‘I notice you look a little concerned, could I be of any assistance?’ can go a long way to supporting someone who may be feeling isolated with their problems and in need of support.


There are many other ways you can build your capacity to engage in compassionate conversations and if you’d like to learn more follow this link to register your interest in future updates and workshops.