Compassion has a bad reputation.
When you think "compassion," it can be easy to flash on a passive if powerful emotion for someone else that might overwhelm your own feelings or needs and even drain your resolve. But in fact, you may be confusing compassion with something else.
Compassion and Empathy--Not the Same Thing
Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, who has promoted compassion in his company, emphasizes the difference between the two: compassion is more about understanding and acknowledging what another person is experiencing and then following through with action, while empathy is more about sharing and absorbing those exact feelings. If, for example, you encounter someone in pain, empathizing will result in feeling that pain yourself, while compassion will spur you to try to alleviate the pain for that person.
Neuroscience researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin confirm this: The brain itself experiences empathy and compassion differently, and incorporating too much suffering of others leads to emotional burnout, while compassion can actually increase our resilience and approach stressful situations with a more positive outcome.
How Compassion Makes You Stronger
Promotes Action. By prompting us to act to resolve problems, not just sit with them or evade them, compassion helps us assume a kind of control. Avoiding uncomfortable or embarrassing situations or letting questionable behavior slide can lead to passivity. But when we're in action, we're not liable to be walked over; we're taking charge.
Sparks Understanding. By considering another person's point of view as valid, we can begin to recast an issue in a different light, even as it conflicts with our own perspective. Having the courage and willingness to practice this, especially when we'd rather not, entails mastery and strength and power--the opposite of being a doormat.
Fosters Connection. Cultivating and practicing compassion helps curb judgment and encourages connection--which in turn creates a more level field, a commonality and equality.
Cultivates Leadership. Compassion doesn't mean that when someone messes up, we ignore the mistake, avoid confronting or dealing with it, or hope it goes away--nor does it mean we get angry or assume the behavior is a character flaw. Instead, true compassion will lead us to try to understand the root of the failure or problem: what was going on, what was he thinking, what led to this outcome? This inquiry--even as it allows room to also acknowledge our own frustration and irritation--will not only demonstrate leadership but can also exemplify compassion at its head-on best.
What Acting Effectively with Compassion Looks Like
It can mean merely asking a co-worker how he's doing. Or offering help to a teammate struggling with too much on his plate. But it can also mean letting a teammate know that, say, her communicating style is alienating co-workers, or that not meeting deadlines repeatedly affects the whole group, and not just her. Compassion means having enough respect to calmly confront someone on what they may not be aware of or won't cop to themselves, of encouraging them to be a better, more effective, and more accountable version of themselves.
Can this be awkward? Very possibly. But if you approach it without judgment or criticism but with true curiosity and an authentic desire to understand the back story, communication channels will open, you'll be operating from a position of strength, and most important, you'll have a better chance of not just resolving the immediate problem but similar mistakes to come.
By treating others with dignity and respect, you reinforce your own dignity, garner respect from others, and create a more productive environment in which effective work can be done.