Empathy and compassion are two traits that are truly hard to come by. And for most of us it comes out of an experience where we suffer the same fate of another. Walk a mile in my shoes and then you will know what my life is like, is a famous saying we have all heard, but how many of us actually take the time to do so.
Well more and more this is changing through the power of simulation. Take for example the Macklin Institute’s program Xtreme Aging (http://www.mackliniginstitute.org/), a 1- 3 hour simulation program on what it feels like to age, something we are all destined to do.
Trainees create the effects of aging by wearing glasses that limit one’s vision, cotton in one’s ears and nose to limit the ability to hear and smell, rubber gloves with rubber bands around the knuckles to simulate arthritic joints and corn kernels in the shoes to simulate the effect of tissue and bone loss. In these conditions they are asked to perform normal daily tasks; button and fold a shirt, shuffle a deck of playing cards, find a number in the phone book, fold a map, take the right amount of money from a wallet and pay for groceries.
As one participant reports, “I fumble through the bills and change, dropping some onto the ground. Then, with my cataract like vision, I find that it’s hard to differentiate between bills. On my first try, I actually overpay the grocery store with a $100 bill.”
And yet how easily is it for us to get frustrated when we are behind an older person in line at the market. What’s the matter with this person, they are so slow”, we think to ourselves.
So as a leader of an organization, how much time do you think about what is it like to be in the shoes of those you lead? Do you know what it is like to take on an assignment and be under pressure to perform, when maybe the person is being stretched a little too far? Do you know what feels to be in the shoes of your executive who has once again been passed over for a promotion and yet expected to still contribute to the cause as if nothing happened?
I could probably write for another 10 pages on all the experiences our employees face on a daily basis when we make any decision that impacts them, which is almost every decision we make. And maybe it is exactly because every single decision we make impacts, in some fashion someone in our organization that we shut down our experience of compassion. It can feel so overwhelming that if we let ourselves be concerned with the impact of every decision we make, we would be rendered useless.
Or so the prevailing thinking would have us believe. But there is a way to be effective AND remain compassionate. It is by recognizing that one can be compassionate and still make the decisions required for the well being of the organization and even for the individuals involved.
Let me give you one example. When I am stretching someone to the next level of their development I know it is going to create discomfort and pain for a period of time. I have been able to hold this tension by remembering that sometimes it is the very pain another is feeling that helps them grow. I know this because I can draw on my own personal experience of how I experienced pain during my own growth. I have come to appreciate that it is the very act of doing that which is hard, awkward and uncomfortable that has always moved me to higher levels of performance.
And so, when I am setting higher expectations for another, when I am stretching them to grow, I draw on my own experience and I feel their pain and the joy that will emerge on the other side. And from this place, almost naturally my communication changes and my challenge to them is delivered and received in a way that encourages and motivates the other.
Compassion comes from the Latin, com + pati, together + suffer. Compassion is to suffer together, to share the experience of life’s struggle as we grow and develop, and to be compassionate is nothing more than to remember our own experience that another is going through. Whether it is a person learning to live through the aging phase of life or one of our employees learning to expand their abilities, we too can know what it is like to walk a mile in their shoes.