Cultivating Powerful Relationships: The 21st Century Case for Compassion
The introductory article to the “Cultivating Powerful Relationships” series proposed all human beings thrive in a homeostasis (balance) when two things are present – a strong individual purpose and harmonious relationships. Likewise, when organizations form relationships with one another and know their purpose, society functions more cohesively. But how do individuals and organizations cultivate purposeful relationships where everyone benefits?
The short answer: compassion.
Regrettably, the dominating consumerist schools of thought, like Fordism made little room for compassion over the last few centuries. When we lack compassion for our employees, business partners and teammates, this flawed convention rapidly spreads until it becomes a toxic organizational culture seeping into both society and the environment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a 2015 study from the Journal of Industrial Ecology found consumerism contributes to more than 60% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Business relationship management (BRM) helps reverse this trend by channeling the power of compassion inward to build partnering relationships within organizations. For BRMs – operating as connector, orchestrator, and navigator – cultivating a compassionate mindset is critical to progressing in your role and advancing the BRM capability.
But in order to practice compassion, the first step is to define it.
Unfortunately, many dictionaries define the word “compassion” in terms of pity. This is detrimentally untrue. Compassion is not pity; being compassionate does not mean helping others because we feel bad for or look down upon them. Quite the opposite, actually. Compassion means being able to feel with someone and acting with the desire to help them thrive.
While many different definitions of compassion exist, we build from the definition put forth by Dean Curtain professor emeritus of philosophy. In his paper “Compassion and Being Human”1 Curtin succinctly asserts, “compassion is a cultivated aspiration to benefit other beings.” As we can see, this differs drastically from a pity-based definition.
Similarly, during the closing keynote at BRMConnect 2019, Liz Schellenger, CBRM® swept the room with her recognition that BRMs exist to help others.
Compassion stems from our innate ability to empathize with other creatures. And BRMs are natural compassion practitioners.
We are Biologically Wired to Practice Compassion
Humans are social creatures. In fact, like many social animals such as dolphins, domestic dogs, and songbirds, we are born with the ability to empathize with others. Mirror neurons, located in the F5 part of the human brain, make this possible. If a teammate yawns during a meeting, you may be likely to yawn as well, even if you are not tired or bored. This is all thanks to mirror neurons.
“Thanks to our mirror neurons, we can consciously experience another human being’s movements as meaningful.”
-Prof. Dr. Thomas Metzinger, professor of theoretical philosophy
For example, you may empathically feel excited when your business partner shares they earned a coveted promotion. Why? You are biologically inclined to do so.
However, while our natural ability to empathize may be useful, empathy is not compassion. Remember the definition, compassion is a cultivated aspiration to benefit other beings. We can empathize with others and yet decide not to help them. Unlike empathy, compassion is not an immediate biological compulsion and thus, must be cultivated as a practice.
Compassion vs. Empathy
According to the Dalai Lama,
“Compassion…is not just sharing experience with others, but also wishing to see them relieved of their suffering.” (Curtin p.40)
He goes on to make the claim that compassionate doctors would not be very effective if they simply shared their patients’ pain without doing anything to help alleviate it. Thus, to practice compassion means to empathize first, and then make a conscious decision to help relieve others of their pain.
Likewise, the most successful salespeople first ask questions to hear their partners’ concerns (they empathize), and then provide a potential solution. If you aspire to help others inside and outside your organization, then compassion is your most prolific and achievable tool.
To provide a clearer distinction between empathy and compassion, take this analogy:
Compassion is to Empathy as feelings are to emotions.
Emotions can be difficult to control, for good reason. When the body strays from homeostasis, emotions are the natural responses to indicate that something has changed. For example, when someone slams a door in the office, your instinctual emotional response may tell you to resort to “fight or flight” mode. Your pulse quickens, you become instantly alert, and your body might want to jump up and run to the nearest exit.
Feelings, however, prevent you from doing this because you trust the people around you, and offices are generally safe. Thus, your feelings apply rational thinking to the non-rational emotional response by reminding the body that you are in a safe environment. Therefore, you feel safe in the office even if your emotional response makes your heart jump at a surprising sound.
In the same way, compassion applies rational problem-solving to empathic feelings to best serve others. Which raises the next question,
“How can I help others with a compassion mindset?”
This question may take many forms and, depending on the problem, may be answered in a matter of seconds or possibly years. Regardless, the cultivated practice of compassion takes time to hone. But if BRMs foster compassion within yourselves and among your teams, even the most toxically competitive organization can evolve into one that fosters collaboration, innovation, and trust. Consequently, by supporting people and purpose, the resulting profit and achieved goals will occur organically.
Here's how you can start cultivating a practice of compassion in your BRM role today!
- Empathize first. Ask your partners what problems they struggle with and try to understand how they may be feeling.
- Listen actively. Truly listen to what they say. While they share, try not to be distracted by thinking about your response; focus instead on paraphrasing what you understood.
- Act with compassion. If you enter a conversation with the desire to help them overcome and succeed, your response will naturally be both beneficial and productive.
- Leverage resources. Professionally developed tools like the Value Plan and Strategic Partnering Approach exist to help you reach compassionate solutions with rationality.
- Be patient with yourself. Developing a compassionate practice is challenging and time-intensive, but completely worth it. And remember, it is okay to make mistakes!
Ultimately, you can spread compassion by sharing your knowledge and best practices with others. After all, great leaders make great leaders in everyone around them.
As a BRM, you are already a great leader who exists to help others. Continue to practice and share while evolving your professional skillset for a more sustainable, compassionate world.
If you enjoyed this article, check out the one in the series which focuses on purpose…
Don’t miss the free webinar series dedicated to giving you the tools you need to advance your career.
The Knowledge Path to Success webinar series will kick off Wednesday November 4th with an exploration of the Business Relationship Management (BRM) Executive Brief Class.
Curtin, Deane. “Chapter 2. Compassion and Being Human.” Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth, by Carol J. Adams, Bloomsbury Academic, 2014, pp. 39–57.
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