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7 Ways to Improve Your Capacity for Compassion

I attended a leadership conference a few weeks ago at which I had been asked to speak.  In one of the sessions, I was surprised when a senior executive stood before a group of newly promoted leaders and said, “I want to remind you of the importance of really loving the people who work for you!”  I have long believed that leaders who truly care for their people become the leaders who are able to help others to create extraordinary results.  I just had never heard anyone express this sentiment so directly or openly.

Caring for others really does have an impact on how we treat and speak with others. I have often been asked after spending a number of days teaching a variety of conversation skills, “Is there any way I could assimilate all you have been teaching us about communicating more quickly?”  The answer to this question is both “yes” and “no.”


The “Yes” Answer  

In thinking about the answer to this question, I am reminded of a story I heard years ago. It seems that a certain community was being ravaged by diphtheria.  A young father heard that his neighbors and their three children had been stricken.  Because no one seemed to want to help for fear of being infected, he took it upon himself to help this family.

When he visited the family’s home, he found one of the children had died and the two others were in utter agony from the disease. Because the parents of the child were also stricken, he immediately prepared the toddler’s body for burial, cleaned the rest of the house, prepared a meal, and saw to the remaining children’s needs. The next day when he returned to the home, he found another child had died in the night. He then turned his attention to the remaining child who was suffering.  With no thought for himself, he took the child in his arms and walked the floor with her trying to provide some degree of comfort until she was overcome by the disease and died.  He continued to assist this grief-stricken family by preparing the children’s bodies for burial.  He ended up making funeral arrangements and speaking at the graveside services. 

This man over time became a great leader in his community in part because of the compassion he had for others. How could such an individual who possessed the character trait of compassion and kindness not radiate and speak to others in such a way that would leave no doubt that he cared for each of them?  One way to become a better communicator is to develop compassion for others.

The “No” Answer

How do you learn or teach others compassion?  In some measure, the care and concern we have for others is an outward expression of how we feel about ourselves.  For example, if you are angry or distrusting of others, your outward treatment of them is a reflection of how you see the world and those in it. Our compassion and kindness toward others is grounded in our awareness of our own humanity and the depth of our experience.  It is difficult to have compassion for those that are hungry until you have been hungry.  As we come to respect ourselves, our respect for others will increase.  Likewise, the opposite is true.  As we get outside ourselves and understand the plight of another, we may begin to understand ourselves more deeply.

Here are some suggestions for expanding your capacity for compassion:

Set Your Judgment Aside

We are too quick to make negative assessments of others who don’t quite meet our expectations.  Be aware enough to recognize your thinking and set any negative conclusions aside.  Being willing to challenge your thinking may lead you to discover that your first impressions were incomplete or inaccurate.

Explore Their Perspective

Everyone’s behavior is grounded in some degree of rationality, even if their reasoning is only evident to them.  Taking the time to ask questions and understand their perspective will help you understand the mindset that drives their behavior.

Demonstrate Appreciation

Look for opportunities (or create an opportunity) to assist, support, or contribute to the success or wellbeing of another.  Not only will you feel more positive, but such actions are contagious and are likely to be replicated by others.

Forgive Others

There is nothing worse than holding on to negative thoughts and feelings about others.  Doing so is not only unhealthy physically and mentally, but to some degree you will hinder yourself from achieving what is important to you.  Let your negative feelings and judgments go and look for ways to increase respect, strengthen relationships, and improve results.

Speak Kind Words

Not only will a kind word lift a person in the moment, but those kind words may positively impact that person for the rest of their life.  Kindness begets kindness.  If you are kind to others, they will in turn be kind to you and to those around them, causing a wonderful ripple effect.

Hold Others Accountable

Being compassionate does not mean that you avoid holding difficult and necessary conversations.  On the contrary, holding these types of conversations says that you care enough about the person to talk about what matters most.  This will be appreciated as you demonstrate your own integrity and commitment to compassion by treating people with dignity and respect.

This topic is an opportunity for some personal reflection and soul searching which is not always easy.  But, if you really want to improve the quality of your conversations and relationships, there is much to be said in support of improving yourself and your view of humanity.

What do you do to cultivate compassion in yourself and others? How has this impacted you? Your relationships with others?  We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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Why Don't People Take Initiative?

This is a question I have contemplated for a long time. Recently my exploration became more focused because of a challenge that occurred in our office.

As I was getting on a plane to fly east, a client I was traveling to visit, informed me that the training materials we had shipped two weeks earlier had never arrived. I immediately emailed my assistant to alert her and asked her to reach out to the client to remedy the situation.

When I arrived in New York, I was picked up by a car service. En route to Connecticut, I texted my assistant to check on the situation. She assured me that FedEx confirmed that the materials had been delivered. Meanwhile, the client sent me numerous emails during the day claiming that the materials had in fact not been delivered. I asked my assistant whether she had called the client during the day. No, she responded, she had not--because she did not have my direct contact’s number. I was dumbfounded by her inaction. After all, she has access to all of my email accounts.  All she had to do is open my email, find the contact’s number, and call him. Unfortunately she did not take the initiative to do as I had hoped she would.

Luckily, the limo driver was a retired Pitney Bowes executive. He asked me if I knew the town and zip code where we had sent our package. After I told him, he said that the client had given us the wrong zip code. Sure enough, he was right!  With that information, we were able to track down the materials and get them to the client in time for the training.

Although we were able to resolve the issue, it could have been avoided. Once I got home, I had the opportunity to hold a REAL conversation with my assistant about what happened and what prevented her from taking the initiative in solving the problem at the time.

In talking with other executives and colleagues, I have found that they often experience similar issues in their organizations. This is what I have discovered about why people fail to take initiative:

Bounded Rationality

This is another way of saying that people do not see past what they know. In other words, when a situation comes up that is entirely outside that person's experience or expertise--and it is something that they have never even stopped to consider--then that person will have a hard time even perceiving what’s going on. We can be functionally blinded by our own expertise and experience. When our rationality is bounded, we might find it easier to ignore the problem and hope it will just go away.

Lack of Capability

When confronted with a task or situation entirely outside their experience or expertise, people lack the knowledge to do what is asked. They just don’t know how, and they might not even know what questions to ask in order to begin to grasp what is required. They may not understand the directions they are given. Or they might not be willing to run the risk of being perceived as stupid or inept, so they do not dare to ask clarifying questions that might reveal their ignorance or ineptitude. They say nothing and complete the task incorrectly or not at all.

Sometimes when people are asked to do something they have never done before, they feel like they are being asked to walk out of the light and into the darkness of the unknown. This is an uncomfortable place to be, especially if they believe there are negative consequences for a wrong decision or action.

Management “Search and Rescue”

You may be surprised to learn that for some people, simple inaction seems to be a viable strategy. These people indicated that in their experience, if they do nothing, then someone else (usually a manager) will step in and do it for them. Managers, take note that this style of “rescue management” teaches people that they don’t need to be accountable, while itrobs them of the experience of learning from their mistakes. Those whom you rescue in this way do not learn to think critically or develop viable solutions to their challenges. They simply assume someone else will pick up the slack.

Recently I was trying to help one of my children develop some critical thinking skills. He replied, rather agitatedly, "Dad, cut out all these questions and just tell me what I am supposed to do!” As leaders or parents, we are often sorely tempted to bail them out. And we usually do. But we should realize that in the long run, we are not doing the people we rescue any favors.

Execution over Innovation

Some people are so task-driven that they are more concerned about working through their list of to-do’s than about taking on a new task that may have no clear path to solution. Their list has become more important than the skill of figuring out a new solution.

Task Overload

Others have so much on their plate that they simply cannot process one more assignment. These overworked people will often shut down or refuse to take on anything else, keeping solely to the tasks they have been assigned. Unfortunately, they often do this without telling anyone about their overload, so the challenge or the new assignment goes unaddressed.

Ignorance by Convenience

Shades of this dynamic may be present in all of the other dynamics as well. I have heard people say that found "not knowing" to be quite convenient. "Ignorance is bliss," they say. In other words, I can’t be held accountable for what I don't know how to do or what I simply don’t do. These "ignorant" folks actually go so far as to say that they would rather accept the consequences for failing to act at all, rather than face the consequences of doing the wrong thing.


Obviously, all of these responses are nothing more than excuses people make to rationalize their failure to act. If you expect your people to take initiative, you need to (1) clearly outline your expectations and (2) assess their ability to perform what is asked. (3) Consider the person's current workload and (4) stress the priority of what you are asking over their normal tasks, if that is appropriate. (5) Take time to coach, teach, and mentor individuals who are uneasy about taking on responsibilities outside their area of expertise--you may need to encourage people to think independently to solve problems as they arise. (6) Finally, be willing to let people learn from their mistakes and wildly celebrate their successes.

How have you been able to encourage others to take the initiative? What worked well? What didn’t work?

We would love to hear from you in the comments below--just be sure you are logged in to your DialogueWORKS account, and you can make comments or reply to others' comments. Click on the link at the top right-hand corner of this page to create your account if you haven't done so already!

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Is Your Workplace a Jerk Place?

All of us at one time or another have had the opportunity to work with or for someone that we would label as a jerk, idiot, or moron.  And we have all probably been a jerk at some point to those with whom we associate.

Do you know people that display the characteristics listed below? Are you guilty of any of these behaviors yourself? If so, what do you think is the payoff for behaving in such a manner?  After all, we behave the way we do if we perceive that there is something we can get for doing so.  I hope thinking about these behaviors will provide a degree of mental preparation and readiness that will assist you with your next difficult encounter.

The Interrogator

These individuals ask questions for the sake of asking questions, not because they want to learn anything.  They are often trying to challenge people’s intelligence or make them look unprepared or inept in front of others.  Sometimes their questions feel like a frontal assault. They may ask a number of questions and never give the person an opportunity to answer.

What to Do

Be prepared with facts and data.  Sometimes these individuals don’t want to accept what they are hearing or are trying to elevate themselves in some way.  If you can support or substantiate your statements with evidence, they will find it more difficult to discredit you.

If you are dealing with a barrage of questions, you can slow this interaction down by turning the tables and asking them questions.  For example, you might try some of these:

               “What specifically do you want to know?”

               “Could you give me an example of what you meant by ‘unprepared?’”

               “What do you want to know by asking these questions?”


Sometimes answering a question with a question will force the other person to think about what is most important rather than using questions as a means of making a point.

The Intimidator

These folks often have a very abrasive style.  They are rough around the edges and are often accused of being too direct, cold, and blunt.  They also don’t hesitate to “dress down” or confront an individual in front of others.  They may also just blurt out “unfiltered” thinking or criticism without concern for others. People who use this style of communication become angry if they don’t get what they want, or if people don’t keep their commitments.

What to Do

Don’t take these people personally if they confront you about something.  Remember, behind the emotion is a value they feel has been violated.  Ask questions to help them move from a place of irrational reaction to discover the issue behind their emotional outburst.  Remain calm and don’t be drawn in by reacting to their attack. If it’s not possible to excuse yourself from the situation, let them vent and make plans to talk at a later time when they have calmed down and are more rational.  If there is a high level of trust between you and this person, and the timing is right, you may be able to talk with this person about their behavior. 

The Micromanager

We’ve all known people who have a hard time delegating tasks to other people.  Because they want to guarantee success, they constantly check up on people or may even do the work for them.  Those working with these types of managers are often frustrated and feel that the manager doesn’t trust them to do their job.

What to Do

Formulate a specific plan for completing the task with checklists and timelines.  Identify your goals and the options you have chosen to achieve the goals.  Seek their approval and take action.  Check in frequently and regularly to report results.  Ask for clarification and specifics of anything they are asking you to do. 

As a river guide, I found that I could increase my credibility and the amount of tips offered at the end of the trip by telling my clients what I would do, doing it, and then telling them what I did. These tactics will increase their confidence in you while reassuring them that you can deliver great results and follow through on your commitments.

The Blamer

One of my first managers in business was a blamer.  She blamed me when I did what she asked and things didn’t turn out as she had hoped.  She blamed me when things went well because she thought I could have achieved more. 

Unfortunately, some managers often blame others to avoid responsibility and to escape the spotlight being shined on their poor performance.

What to Do

Make a plan that your boss agrees to.  Document it and get it in writing.  When customer demands change the priorities and the plan, get that in writing.  Don’t assume anything and ask questions to clarify.  Be sure and document any changes that are made.  This can help interrupt the blame cycle when things don’t go as planned.

The Sycophant

This individual goes out of their way to praise powerful people to get their support and approval.  Their relationships with higher-ups afford them a high degree of protection from the consequences of their poor performance or bad behavior.  They usually offer false praise to those who work for them as a strategy for manipulating others to achieve their goals.

What to Do

You need to document the consequences and outcomes of their behavior if you expect to be believed.  Often the reason these people offer praise is because they seek praise themselves.  Look for opportunities to express sincere praise that adds value for the good things they do.  Don’t believe everything they tell you.  These individuals are often highly negative or critical of others while seemingly praising you.  Because such behavior is self-serving, you don’t want to get caught up in speaking negatively about others, ever.

There are numerous behaviors that you might find offensive as you work with others. Taking a moment to notice what is happening in your dealings with them and then carefully planning a strategy to handle such difficult people will improve the quality of your interactions as you work to build a career and deliver optimal results.

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