The Compassion Continuum

If you look back on your week where has compassion shown up?  

To help answer this question, let’s explore in a little more detail what compassion means. What does it mean to us, to those around us, in our work-worlds and in our organizational context. How does it show up in our daily lives and how do we live and lead with compassion?

The dictionary definition of compassion is the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.  

Building on this definition, most of the current research defines compassion as a three-part process:  

  1. noticing others’ distress 
  2. empathising; and 
  3. responding to alleviate suffering 

I’ve recently listened to a brilliant conversation between Professor Michael West and Dr Deborah Lee on the NHS Leadership Academy podcast. Dr Lee believes compassion is rooted in a basic human motivation to want to care for ourselves. It comes from a neurobiological part of our minds and our bodies. So, we’re set up to allow our human nature to flourish through the underpinnings of our neurobiology. You can listen to the full podcast episode here.  

Before we explore what compassion means to us, it’s important to understand that compassion is integral to each of us. It’s part of being human and it’s essential to how we care for ourselves and others.  

What fuels our passion for compassion is our belief that work can and should be a place of joy, a place where everyone can thrive and grow, and compassion is a key enabler for that. 

At Compassionate Cultures, our definition sees compassion as a continuum which encompasses both proactive and reactive behaviours. 

The ‘compassion continuum’ has thriving at one end and suffering at the other, with levels of each along its path. Compassion notices all points of the continuum and acts to not only reduce suffering, but also to enable thriving. 

What do we mean by the ‘compassion continuum’? 

Imagine a situation many of us face at work every day – challenging workloads. 

proactive compassionate approach would include having clear and open conversations about workloads at the beginning of the week ensuring everyone understands what’s expected, feels able to add their thoughts and ideas on how to get the work done, and are aligned that whilst challenging, the work is achievable. 

This is on the left-hand side of the continuum. This proactive approach aims to support an individual or team to thrive and reduce the potential for stress and suffering in a time of challenging workload. 

reactive compassionate approach would include noticing that one of your colleagues was not their usual cheerful self, and not offering as much input into a meeting discussion as you would expect. Taking the time to check in with them, you learn they are overwhelmed with a piece of work that needs to be completed by the end of the week, so you sit down with them and work out ways that either the workload could be shared, or the deadlines extended.

This approach appears on the right-hand side of the continuum. It is a reaction to noticing suffering in another. It’s important to recognise that suffering can mean many different things from stress created by high workloads through to traumatic life events. 

We have designed the 7 attributes of a Compassionate Workplace Culture to support the full compassion continuum. Each attribute provides us with the foundations to enable thriving and reduce levels of suffering.  

Where does compassion show up? 

If you look back on your week, here are three possible places you might have seen compassion show up. 

  1. Creating Connections. When we take time to get to know what’s important to others in and out of work, we build connections that help us feel cared for and valued. These connections create safe spaces where we can thrive both functionally and emotionally. They allow us to be open when we’re struggling and help us recognise when others are struggling and understand what they need from us in that moment.
  2. Self-compassion. You have probably often heard that it’s important to look after yourself, showing yourself the same level of kindness that you would show to others without feeling guilty. Logically you know it’s true but many of us find it hard to practice this every day. In the podcast I’ve mentioned above, Dr Deborah Lee gave a perspective that made me smile and cemented the importance of self-compassion in a way I will steal with pride.

I sometimes make this joke at workshops: Tell me how long is your longest relationship? Everyone’s um-ing and ar-ing, and I just say, well, just tell me your age. That’s the answer. You know, that’s the longest relationship you’ve had. And it’s the most important one because wherever you go, you know, guess who’s coming too? And if you could work on that relationship, if you could really foster a sense of self-compassion, then you begin to nurture something, your glow, your fire. Then everybody feels the resonant sort of warmth from you. And to me, that’s so important because if we forget to look after ourselves, forget to have that connection with ourselves, then the idea of abundance is just depleted.

Dr Deborah Lee
  1. Courage. This is at the heart of compassion and moves us from showing sympathy or empathy to being truly compassionate. With courage we engage in the tough conversations that challenge and hold us accountable. There is often a perception that compassion is weak or soft and this comes down to the motivation behind it. Are you showing compassion because you want the other person to like you, or you don’t want to hurt them? Or are you motivated by a desire to care for that person and help them thrive? This is where compassion is proactive, purpose-led, and people-centred. 

If you look back on your week, where have seen these three elements show up? Where could you do more of them next week? 

Living and leading with compassion 

Compassion is an integral part of each of us and vital for caring for ourselves and others and thriving in our work-worlds. 

We see compassion as a continuum which encompasses both proactive and reactive behaviours that not only reduce suffering, but also enable thriving. 

We’ve created the Compassionate Cultures diagnostic as a tool to help you discover how compassionate your organisation is. It only takes 5 minutes to complete, and you’ll receive a free report and workbook with ideas and activities you can start using today to bring more compassion into the way you live and lead. Click here to take the diagnostic

This blog is one way we love to support individuals, teams, and organisations to thrive and grow. Another is through our monthly newsletter, Compassion Counts, which brings insights, tips, and tools you can use in your work and leadership every day. Click here to start receiving the newsletter each month

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