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Practicing Professional Compassion

Practicing Professional Compassion

Across the globe, in board rooms, in cubicles, on the factory floor–wherever you find workers, a quiet revolution is underway. What began as a movement toward greater spirituality in the workplace has morphed into multiple understandings of what this phrase might mean. It’s characterized by compassionate business practices and a work environment in which employees are recognized and encouraged for the unique, creative capabilities they contribute to the team. Interwoven in this metamorphosis is the fundamental knowing that all individuals– regardless of position, are deserving of respect; that respect is a given, not an added benefit.

Whatever name you choose to call this revolutionary way of business, and whatever tradition, secular or spiritual, might inspire it, compassionate business practices begin within each individual’s core and spread throughout the company through their thoughts, actions, and words. When an organization recognizes the importance of humanizing the workplace and its leaders begin to implement compassionate practices, the climate and the culture of the organization is transformed.

The Role of Leadership

The most obvious and front line individuals to implement and encourage change are those in leadership. While sparks of compassion exist in the heart of every employee, when leadership blows on those embers, compassion spreads like wildfire. Strong, compassionate leadership triggers the ignition of each stakeholder’s capacity for compassion. Therein lies the sustainability of this venture. When leadership embraces the significance of cultivating compassion in every employee, the repercussions cascade one upon the other and the effects of this revolution are felt exponentially.

But how do leaders justify the marriage of sound business practices with innovative social change engines without losing market value? Where do leaders find the courage and trust to shift from a market-driven, profit-based platform to a compassion-based platform? What steps can be taken to ensure that the compassion-based platform will be as profitable financially? Those answers are found when leaders search deep within and lead from the values discovered there.

An organization doesn’t need to lower productivity standards or expect lesser outcomes when a humanistic, more compassionate model is incorporated into a business plan. In fact, often the opposite is true. Incorporating compassion and contemplative practices tends to increase the satisfaction of stakeholders, and the natural outcome of increased job satisfaction is improved output. Even so, incorporating compassion into the workplace environment does not need to be an “all or nothing” venture. Small programs can be implemented as the viability of compassionate action is tested.

How is this compassion change agent initiated? Change begins at the head with the leader or leaders aligning the core values of the organization with compassion. Do leaders need to obtain new skills and values? Probably not. All good leaders have within themselves the building blocks to create a more open, compassionate, thoughtful organization. Before incorporating compassion into the face of organization, the leader is asked to quietly turn within and discern, through reflection and introspection, what their personal core values and beliefs are. The discernment process involves discovering how these values and beliefs are exhibited, or not exhibited, in their personal daily lives. The next step is to access what tools are available to articulate those values and beliefs in their work life.

Each person has a spiritual or secular practice that is the grounding force of their life. It is out of this ground of our being that we choose to react or respond to the world, people and situations, around us. A response is rooted in awareness while a reaction is based in old fears and patterns. Thomas Merton described the difference between a response and a reaction when he wrote:

One of the most important — and most neglected — elements in the beginnings of the interior life is the ability to respond to reality, to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things, to come alive to the splendor that is all around us in the creatures of God. We do not see these things because we have withdrawn from them. In a way we have to. In modern life our sense are so constantly bombarded with stimulation from every side that unless we developed a kind of protective insensibility we would go crazy trying to respond to all the advertisement at the same time!….The first step in the interior life, nowadays, is not, as some might imagine, learning not to see and taste and hear and feel things. On the contrary, what we must do is begin by unlearning our wrong ways of seeing, tasting, feeling, and so forth, and acquire a few of the right ones.

A response comes from being contemplative, which is defined as living in the moment and consciously interacting compassionately with everything in our lives. By living in the knowledge that we are in relationship with the Divine, our self, others, and all of creation, we respond out of love instead of reacting out of fear. For Thomas Merton being firmly grounded in the present was the tool that would prevent us from reacting to the bombardment of stimulation. Merton wrote about this bombardment in the 1950s; Imagine what he would think of our bombardment today!

Guidelines for Leaders

The more we engage in our spiritual practices, the more we move from a place of reactivity to a place of response. The first step is to identify your primary spiritual/contemplative practice. Perhaps the practice is a form of meditation or body prayer such as Tai Chi or Yoga. Other practices include reading sacred scripture, walking a labyrinth, praying the rosary or other prayer beads, attending prayer services, spending time in nature. The list is as long or as short as your personal practice. As you discern your spiritual practices, there are no rules. The practices can be anything that brings you into a calm, reflective, aware state.

After you name your practice or practices, ask yourself how often you engage in each practice. What is your routine? What is the duration of your practice? These are your answers; there are no right or wrong ones. Just be honest with yourself. Optimally, when beginning a spiritual practice, engage at least once a day for no less than ten minutes. Ideally, you will eventually expand this practice to twenty to thirty minutes per contemplative pause.

The goal is to include three separate spiritual or contemplative pauses in your daily routine. These specific times create anchor points in your life. The anchor points are meant to focus your attention and awareness on the present moment. The more you practice this focusing of your awareness, the more it will leach into other areas of your life.

Once you pick your practice, set a specific time each day to engage. If you are beginning a practice, usually morning is preferred as any morning practice sets the tone for the day. Look at your morning practice like eating breakfast. Your breakfast sets the physical nutritional tone for the day; your spiritual practice sets your mind/spirit nutritional tone for the day.

When you are practicing one time each day and have developed a rhythm in which you seldom miss a day, search for two more times for your contemplative pauses. Suggestions include a brief five to ten minute practice at noon and a twenty to thirty minute practice at the end of the day. When deciding upon times to practice or engage in a contemplative pause, ask yourself when in the flow of your day you would most benefit from time out and when you realistically have the time to pause.

The mid-day practice is usually the shortest pause of the day. Ideas for this practice may be focusing on your breathing, taking a brief mindful walk, or using a quote or short but meaningful phrase in which to initiate a contemplative pause. This practice time is truly a pause in your day. It provides a break in which you re-align with your core and re-anchor your being into the present moment. It provides respite from the hectic day and may relax you while opening your mind to potential solutions. This moment is a conscious effort to reaffirm your desire to be mindfully aware and respond to life instead of reacting.

The evening practice allows you to let go of the angst of the day and move into a more relaxed state. This contemplative pause grounds you into the gentle, serene part of yourself. It sets the stage for a peace-filled sleep. Suggested practices include a repeat of the morning practice or try something different: meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, journal writing, scripture, walking…whatever is the best peace-engendering practice for you. In order to have the most beneficial impact, you, the practitioner, must choose what works for you. Again, there are no right or wrong answers.

Give yourself a week or so of consciously and intentionally practicing the same technique at decided upon times throughout the day. After this time has lapsed, ask yourself how you are feeling. What changes do you notice? Do you tend to respond instead of react? If you miss a day of practice, how does that shift your ability to respond? How do you integrate the core values and beliefs that emanate from the practice into your leadership?

Finally, does the practice seem right for you? Does it fit into your life style? If not, try another practice. There are many ways to strengthen your contemplative core. It’s about being willing to discover what practices call to you and invite you to be the spark of metamorphosis in your workplace.

Remember the spiritual practices are the grounding, centering forces in your life. As a leader, these moments form the foundation for how you make decisions in your personal life and in the workplace. This is the foundation of your leadership being. The more you practice and engage in contemplative pauses, the more the ground of your being will be revealed.

You’re called to start where you are. As a marathon runner cannot run over twenty-six miles with one day of practice, so a contemplative/compassionate leadership style cannot be formed and integrated overnight. The key is to name your practices and then practice! Honestly decide what practices are best suited for your disposition. Then “do it.” You may find that what practices you initially work may need to be exchanged for others later. Explore other ways of being silently aware of the world around you.

Notice as you engage your contemplative essence, how your view of people, society, and the world begins to shift around you. In addition to the immediate changes you may witness, as you engage in a life-long commitment of contemplative pauses your life will continue to expand and unfold. Your awareness of life will become more pronounced as you practice. As you become aware, notice how your actions, words, and thoughts shift toward compassion. Your awareness not only brings to light your core values, but serves as the avenue through which your leadership style is changed or strengthened.

At the point where you can intentionally shift your thoughts, words, and actions to compassionate, peace-filled ones, you’ve begun to reap the benefits of your practice and can use these responses to positively impact your work environment. As a leader, name the shift and how your response impacted those around you. How did your response inject compassion into a potentially difficult situation?

Progressing Toward Compassion

Introducing a contemplative approach doesn’t mean that an organization becomes a place of compassion, peace, and love, where anything goes. A core concept of a compassionate workplace is responsibility. Each team member is responsible for specific tasks as well as creating a safe environment in which to work. What happens when members of the team do not complete their responsibilities, are unable to be productive, or are not respectful? That’s when compassion is truly called upon and the leader is called to be a beacon of compassion.

A compassionate organization or workplace isn’t always an enjoyable, feel-good place to work. Difficult decisions regarding employees, productivity, and finances, to name a few, still need to be made. What sets the compassionate workplace apart is the process by which those difficult decisions are made. Maybe you have to terminate a person’s employment. How can that be done compassionately and with regard to the individual while protecting the integrity of the organization? How can a meeting be held compassionately and productively? How can consensus be reached (or not!) in a peaceful manner?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions and many others that will surely arise. But, the root of the solution is found in the core values of the leader and how the leader lives out those core values. The change within the leader or within the organization doesn’t occur immediately, but in incremental steps. Within these steps sound business practices are used to discern if the compassion practices are appropriate for the business or if they need to be modified or if something entirely new needs to be tried.

Shifting to a compassionate way of being for individuals and organizations is not simple, but it is a worthwhile practice that reaps many rewards.

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Vanessa Hurst
Vanessa Hurst

Vanessa Hurst is author of the book Engaging Compassion Through Intent & Action. She is a member of the Coordinating Circle for the Partnership for a Compassionate Louisville and coordinates its awareness campaign. A practicing contemplative for over 21 years, the natural rhythm of her life is to intentionally share compassion with herself, others, and all of creation. Vanessa holds a master’s degree in Natural Health. In her practice as an intuitive healer and spiritual mentor, Vanessa understands living contemplatively and compassionately as the roots of healing. For her, compassion is a lived experience, one she hopes will touch all her relationships but most profoundly her relationship with her son, Merlin. She hopes to inspire many to engage compassion through intent and action. Her new book, "A Constellation of Connections: Contemplative Relationships," is now available on Amazon.