Compassion at Work

Dina Steiner, Founder and Director of Spirit at Work ATX

My first job out of business school was as an analyst for a large international bank. It was the 1980s and our bank was a leader in adding women into their workforce. I thrived in the job, learning to gracefully deflect the sometimes overt, but always subtle, sexism in the “old boys” club. I knew that having a baby would be tricky, but I thought I could work it out through a combination of a grad student husband and daycare. I quit breastfeeding so that it wouldn’t interrupt my work, I didn’t take personal phone calls, I even went on a two week training course when my daughter was 10 weeks old. It all came to a screeching halt the day I was called into my boss’s office (the same boss with 3 kids and a stay-at-home wife), and told that he had noticed that I was leaving the office at 5pm every day – a distinct sign that I was no longer “dedicated to my job”. As a result, I was being moved from a direct client management position to a much lower profile, administrative support job. Full of post-natal hormones and stress, I burst into tears. My terrified boss couldn’t get me out of his office fast enough. So much for compassion and understanding in this so-called “progressive” company.

We all, especially women, have stories like mine about the lack of compassion in the workplace. Bosses who ignore our real issues, gossiping co-workers, disengaged management. It’s no wonder that so many people report feeling like just a “cog in the machine” instead of a person at work.

So what should we do when a co-worker is struggling, when someone expresses frustration, or even worse, cries in the office? Often, like my former boss, we freeze and search for an exit. At best, we offer banal words of agreement or mild sympathy. But true compassion (literally meaning, sharing in another’s suffering or struggles) can be rare, even though studies have shown that a compassionate workplace can yield benefits across the board – a more engaged workforce, increased productivity and higher retention.

Here are five simple actions that everyone can take to make their workplace, and themselves, a little more compassionate:

  1. Active listening – Learning to truly listen to people is a skill that can reap benefits in every area of your business and personal life. It starts by being observant. Learn to let someone finish talking without interrupting. Ask questions to clarify. And don’t be afraid to ask the big ones, “How are you feeling?” and “How can I help?”
  2. Being open and accepting of others – We all don’t have the same concerns and issues. What causes one person to struggle may be a breeze to the next. Don’t judge people or cast blame. Just listen, and accept that this is a concern for the other person, even if it isn’t one of yours.
  3. Speak kindly – Again, don’t judge. Monitor your tone so that you don’t seem impatient or angry. Use body language that shows that you are listening – eye contact, facing the other person, putting down your phone or pen, not glancing at a screen. It’s amazing how much a simple phrase such as “I’m so sorry that you’re going through this.” can make someone feel that they are not alone and that they have been heard.
  4. Offer encouragement and support – Offer help, not advice, unless you are specifically asked. If it is appropriate, ask what you can do to make the situation better. But many times, people will be struggling with something beyond your and their control. Just going out of a cup of coffee to sit and listen can be a welcome gesture. Although touch is a “touchy” subject in the office, sometimes a hand on an arm, a pat on the back, or a hug can express more than words (but be sure to ask before you touch!)
  5. Understand and accept your own difficulties – theologian Diana L. Hayes has said “I believe I have learned, because of my own struggles, how to see, hear, and feel the struggles of others, voiced and unvoiced.” It is usually not helpful to go into details of your own issues with someone who has come to you with theirs. However, if you have experienced the something similar – the death of a parent or a cancer diagnosis, just knowing that you have gone through it, and survived, can sometimes bring strength.

Compassion is the ultimate movement from “I” to “we”. It is true concern for another, with the focus on being “with” (com-). When you express compassion for another, they know that they are not alone, that they are heard, and that you will journey with them as they face life’s struggles.