How to Be More Compassionate at Work

Have you ever dreaded going into work because the people around you were in a negative spiral of energy? We are emotional beings and we can’t help but be affected by the varying moods and interactions we have with others. Life is always changing and this constant change can create difficult thoughts and emotions, which can flow into the workplace. The silver lining is that if we can meet suffering at work with concern and care, compassion naturally arises. Work environments that cultivate compassion create a much more positive and productive place to work.

Compassion in the Workplace:

  • Take greater notice of your fellow employees’ psychological well-being. For example: If an employee has experienced a loss, such as a divorce or death in the family, someone should contact that employee within 24-48 hours and offer help. A study in 2012 demonstrated that people who act compassionately are perceived more strongly as leaders and that perceived intelligence (i.e., how clever and knowledgeable the person is) bridges the relationship between compassion and leadership.
  • Encourage and display more positive contact among employees. In many workplaces where I consult, there are meeting spaces that can be utilized for informal groups and gatherings. Planned groups can be encouraged weekly or monthly and allow for more opportunities to notice when someone needs help or support and then to offer it.
  • Invite more authenticity and open communication in the workplace. If we can keep the communication lines open with respect and kindness, we allow for time to talk about what may need attention and/or empathic connection.
  • Take on the perspective of the other person. In other words, this person is “just like me.” This is also known as “cognitive empathy,” or simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. This type of empathy can help in negotiating or motivating people to give their best effort.
  • Start with self-compassion. In order to truly have compassion for others, we must have compassion for ourselves.

How to Be More Compassionate Through Email

Emailing feels almost like a conversation, but without the emotional signs and social cues of face-to-face interactions. If there’s any challenging content to convey – and if you’re sending an email out to more than one person – it’s easy for problems to arise. Here’s how you can communicate more thoughtfully and compassionately via email.

  1. Keep it short and sweet. Using fewer words usually leads to more clarity and greater impact. Your message can easily get lost in the clutter, so keep it simple.
  2. Ask yourself—should I say this in person? Some messages are just too touchy, nuanced, or complex to handle by email. You may have to deliver the message in a phone call, where you can read cues and have some give and take. Then, you can follow up with a message that reiterates whatever came out of the conversation.
  3. Notice your tone. If there’s emotional content, pay close attention to how the shaping of the words can create a tone. If you have bursts of short sentences, for example, it can sound like you’re being brusque and angry.
  4. Consider your role. If there’s a power dynamic (for example, you are writing to somebody who works for you or who reports to you), you need to take into account how that affects the message. A suggestion coming from a superior in an email can easily sound like an order.

A Mindful Emailing Practice

  1. Begin by composing an email as usual. Try using the Enter key more. Shorter paragraphs are easier to read on screens.
  2. Then stop, and enjoy a long deep breath. Put your hands in front of you and wiggle your fingers to give them a little break. Now, lace your fingers together and place them behind your head. Lean back and give your neck a little rest. Now you’re in a good position for the next step.
  3. Think of the person, or people, who are going to receive the message. How are they reacting? How do you want them to react? Do they get what you’re saying? Should you simplify it some? Could they misunderstand you and become angry or offended, or think you’re being more positive than you intend when you’re trying to say no or offer honest feedback?
  4. Look the email over again and make some changes if necessary. Notice any spelling or grammar errors you may have missed the first time.
  5. Don’t send your email right away. If it’s not time-sensitive, leave it as a draft, compose some other messages or do something else, and then come back to it.
  6. Take one last look, and press send.

How to Be More Compassionate When We Speak

Bringing awareness, or mindfulness, to the way we communicate with others has both practical and profound applications. During an important business meeting, or in the middle of a painful argument with our partner, we can train ourselves to recognize when the channel of communication has shut down. We can train ourselves to remain silent instead of blurting out something we’ll later regret. We can notice when we’re over-reacting and need to take a time-out.

We begin practicing mindful communication by simply paying attention to how we open up when we feel emotionally safe, and how we shut down when we feel afraid. Just noticing these patterns without judging them starts to cultivate mindfulness in our communications. Noticing how we open and close puts us in greater control of our conversations.

Practicing mindful communication often brings us face to face with our anxieties about relationships. These anxieties are rooted in much deeper, core fears about ourselves, about our value as human beings. If we are willing to relate to these core fears, each of our relationships can be transformed into a path of self-discovery. Simply being mindful of our open and closed patterns of conversation will increase our awareness and insight. We begin to notice the effect our communication style has on other people. We start to see that our attitude toward a person can blind us to who the person really is.

What Does Compassionate Listening Look Like?

1. The first step is “listening with the whole body.” This means literally tuning in to the person who is speaking.

“Compassionate” body language includes:

  • Turning toward the speaker, not just with your head, but positioning your whole body to face the speaker.
  • Open body language, such as arms and legs not crossed (and certainly no distractions, like a cell phone, in your hands!).
  • “Approach” signals, such as learning toward, not leaning back from the speaker. This counters our usual instinct to “avoid” or withdraw from suffering, even at the subtle level of body language.

In previous studies, people who felt high levels of compassion spontaneously shifted into this posture. Just assuming this body language can make it easier to make a compassionate connection with someone.

2. The next step is called “soft eye contact.” When it comes to listening, eye contact is usually better than avoiding eye contact. But the most supportive and comfortable eye contact isn’t gazing deeply into a person’s eyes, or staring them down without a break in eye contact. Instead, it’s a soft focus on the triangle created by a person’s eyes and mouth. This allows you to take in the speaker’s full facial expressions. It also includes occasional breaks in eye contact to reduce what can be an uncomfortable intensity.

3. The last step is to offer “connecting gestures.” These gestures let a person know that you are feeling connected to what they are saying. The most appropriate connecting gestures are smiles and head nods, without interrupting the speaker. Connecting gestures encourage a speaker to continue, and often feel more supportive than when the listener jumps in verbally to make comments. When appropriate, touch is an even more powerful connecting gesture. Previous research has shown that people can more easily recognize compassion through touch—such as a comforting hand on your shoulder—than through voice or facial expressions.

How to Add a Healthy Dose of Self-Compassion to Your Meals

A lack of self-compassion closes the door to learning about our habits, patterns, triggers and needs when it comes to food. By adopting a forgiving and curious attitude instead, you can foster a healthy relationship with eating and food and yourself that can open the door to improved health and happiness.

1. Give up black-and-white thinking.

Embrace the fact that healthy eating is flexible and can include a wide variety of foods, some of which are richer than others, such as a pizza. And sometimes the healthier choice may be the richer choice.

For example, which would be a healthier choice at a party: Pizza or salad? The salad is only healthier if that’s what you really want. Otherwise, you might feel deprived and end up overeating later. Enjoying pizza mindfully as part of a celebration allows for the many roles that food plays in our lives. We can often end up feeling satisfied with less when it does.

2. Become aware of how you talk to yourself when eating.

Does a tape start running in your head that admonishes you not to eat too much or not to eat certain types of foods? Or that you’re a failure if you do? Write down what you say to yourself.

3. Write down kind responses to your inner critic.

Have readily available responses that you can “turn on” when you hear yourself starting to go down the familiar road of negative self-talk.

4. Practice those kind responses to yourself.

Every time you hear yourself talking negatively to yourself about your eating, take a moment to be kind to yourself. Try carrying around a small notebook with your new messages to refer to. Remember, the first time you do something differently is the hardest. Every time you do it thereafter, it gets easier.