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Activating Compassionate Empathy — An Excerpt from the Bonus Chapter to “Transfluence”

A framed quote hangs on the wall in my home office in Denver that says, Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. While it’s credited to Plato, the actual source is John Watson, a Scottish author who wrote under the pen name Ian Maclaren.

The original wording said, “be pitiful” instead of “be kind,” but back in 1897, that phrase meant compassionate or merciful.

“This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world,” Watson wrote, “with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle, we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him, nor help his lower self.”20

If some experience in your life allows you to truly empathize with someone who is going through a difficult time, then give them your full-on, genuine empathy. If you can’t empathize, however, you can deal kindly. In the same way that you can celebrate someone’s good fortunes even if you haven’t experienced the same victory, you can sit compassionately with someone in their pain.

"The ultimate form of love is compassion."

Rick Warren, the theologian and best-selling author, points out that when we share in someone’s joy, “it gets doubled,” and when we share in someone’s pain, “it’s halved.”21 And even when we can’t fully empathize, we can draw close to those who are hurting and provide them with support.

“The ultimate form of love is compassion,” Warren says. “Compassion says, ‘I’ll do anything I can to stop your hurt.’”22

To that I would add that compassion also says, “Even if I don’t fully understand your pain, I’ll sit with you in it and do anything I can to stop the hurt.”

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In 2020, filmmaker Chloe Zhao won critical acclaim for Nomadland, a fictional movie that leans heavily on the real stories of people who have disconnected from normal society and travel about the country living in their vehicles without attempting to put down roots. By spending time with real nomads, Zhao learned some insightful lessons about compassion from the way she was treated and the way nomads treated each other.

“I especially want to thank the nomads who shared their stories with us,” Zhao said during her acceptance speech for best director at the Golden Globes. “I asked one of them, Bob Wells, to help me out here, and this is what he said about compassion. ‘Compassion is the breakdown of all the barriers between us. A heart-to-heart bonding. Your pain is my pain. It’s mingled and shared between us.’”23

The challenges of our times aren’t going away, and we won’t be able to relate to everything that everyone around us is experiencing. But we can sit with them. We can listen. We can let their pain mingle with our experiences. And even if we never say a word, we can somehow help them cut their pain in half. Call it compassion. Call it empathy. Call it what you will. Just don’t avoid it. Do what you can, and trust that it will be enough.

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  1. Ian Maclaren, The Homely Virtues, (Mead Dodd, 1902).
  2. Rick Warren, “Rick Warren Offers Heartfelt Advice for Supporting Grieving Friends,” Charisma.
  3. ibid
  4. Peter Sblendorio, “Chloé Zhao becomes second woman to win best director at Golden Globes for ‘Nomadland’,” New York Daily News, February 28, 2021.

Excerpted from “Rethinking Empathy,” a bonus chapter to Transfluence

How to Share Support When You Don’t Share Another’s Experience

If you’d like to explore more about empathy and how to improve your leadership empathy skills, download my new bonus chapter.

Comments

  1. Tim Bahr

    Life started to make a lot more sense when I realized that everyone I encountered was fighting their own battles, struggles that I could never know or fully appreciate until I “walked a mile in their shoes”

    Reply to Tim Bahr

    1. Walt Rakowich

      Yes. And from a leadership perspective, it tests your willingness to do what you would ask of others.

      Reply to Walt Rakowich

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