On World Mental Health Day, Advance HE associate and masterclass leader Byron Lee puts the case for compassion as a tool for change, ahead of our Executive Masterclass exploring mindful leadership.
Almost every day we read about the adverse effect of inequality, prejudice and discrimination, and hear raised voices calling for greater fairness, equality and social justice. Yet this not new news. Looking at some of the headlines you might be forgiven for imagining that we’ve gone back in time to the days when ‘casual’ misogyny and racism were part of everyday life.
However, growing up in the ‘60 and ‘70s and having spent the past three decades helping individuals, groups, organisations and communities work towards a fairer world for all, I have seen progress. But could we be doing more? And do we need to be making real progress? The kind of progress that, for example, requires an organisation to go beyond displaying its core values of respect, dignity, inclusion, compassion and fairness as aspirations. One that goes towards embedding these values as actions that in turn become the positive ‘lived’ experiences of everyone, including those who so often get missed out.
Like many of my colleagues who have been active in the field of equality, diversity and inclusion, offering support to help individuals, teams and organisations make progress has at times been challenging. In my experience of working with people in the health and social care sector, rarely is this because people within the workplace don’t share these values. On the contrary. Often the very reason people chose to work in this sector is because they share these values. Likewise, l have also met many very committed individuals who have wanted to see change happen, and have made it part of their life’s work to do whatever they can. Yet despite all these efforts, the painful truth is that progress is slow. Understandably too slow for many. This reality check calls for us to increase our efforts; to work together and take the necessary steps to build a better world for all.
So where does compassion fit into all this? Well firstly if we take the meaning of compassion, the ability to see suffering, to empathically understand that suffering, and to take action to alleviate suffering, we are immediately reminded that compassion, rather than being a passive ‘feel-good’ emotion, is in fact an active process. A process which requires us to engage, understand and respond to the needs of others. When we combine the process of compassion with inclusion, we begin to see how compassion can be a bridge to a deeper engagement in themes relating to inclusion, and to focus our energies on responding to the needs we uncover through deep listening, a process that requires us to let go of believing ‘we know best’ and working in partnership towards action and change.
Also, through the development of greater self-compassion (including the non-judgemental acceptance of our conditioned responses, personal preferences, prejudices and ethnocentric perspective of the world), we can begin to explore more deeply, topics that often either go unresolved, ignored or ‘solved’ prematurely, due the overwhelming nature of the situation and the emotions that they may evoke. In short, self-compassion can be an important first step to engaging more compassionately with the struggle of others.
Building a compassionate approach to inclusion offers advocates of change the chance to support people to stay more engaged with topics relating to equality, diversity and inclusion. In doing so, we are supporting the vital first step on the road to a compassionate response to inclusion: seeing suffering, and staying engaged without being overwhelmed. Ensuring people at all levels empathically understand, both emotional and cognitively, the lived experience of others, is key to helping people respond to people’s needs. Without an understanding of the needs of others, the risk is that people, particularly leaders, do not see the need to take action, or because of discomfort with the topic, take steps to minimise or avoid any ongoing unpleasant feelings they may have, without fully understanding what would work best in the situation and for those involved.
Furthermore, from a leadership perspective, evidence suggests that power diminishes empathy, and thus has the potential to impede leadership compassion. In practice, helping leaders acknowledge compassionate approaches to equality, diversity and inclusion, will play an important part in supporting leadership engagement in what may prove to be an effective strategy for making real progress. And as interest in compassion as a tool for change increases, offering development opportunities that combine compassion and inclusion feels like a natural evolution within a field that benefits from a diverse range of approaches.
Finally, the words of the Dalai Lama, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive,” suggest that the question we need to be considering going forward is not ‘Can compassion make a difference?’ rather, ‘How can compassion make a difference?’
And how, in our everyday decisions, encounters, activities and actions can we bring a compassionate approach to improving the lives of everyone?
Byron Lee is leading our Executive Masterclass on Mindful Leadership on 30 October. Find out more and book here.