The Truth of the Matter: How Evidence Supports Compassion
By Joy Reichart, New Ventures West, guest contributor
Our minds are truly incredible, aren’t they? Charged as they are to compile, compute, and make meaning out of all of our experiences—which themselves are filtered through our sensitive bodies, trauma-filled pasts, and complex circumstances of life—our minds come up with infinite, brilliant stories and theories as to why things are the way they are.
With all this in play, it can serve us greatly to ground our assessment of a given situation in the evidence before us.
Evidence is not just the stuff of crime scenes and courtrooms—it is foundational for compassion. Just as we would never exonerate or condemn someone based on what we suspect they may have done, it is difficult - if not impossible - to have genuine compassion for a person without at least a sense of what is happening for them. Observing the truth of what we’re being shown is a much easier and more effective way of connecting than guessing is.
Evidence in coaching
Evidence is an essential aspect of Integral Coaching. When reporting on their work with clients, students of the method are repeatedly asked to give evidence for why they have assessed a client a certain way, why they’ve assigned a practice, or even why they view a client’s arc of development the way they do. This is part of building the body of a coach: working with a client in a way that is grounded in the reality of their (the client’s) life—not the coach’s ideas about it.
For instance, perhaps a client seeks out coaching because he is feeling lonely and isolated. Using the Six Streams of Consciousness Model, the coach assesses that he has the most potential for development in the spiritual stream.
Let’s look at her evidence for this.
Despite working from home for the last two years of the pandemic, her client’s relationship with his partner and teenager have deepened. He has a robust network of professional support and a close-knit circle of old friends who stay in touch regularly. However, the client reports that he longs for a sense of purpose and an overall connection to something greater than himself. He feels unfulfilled in his work, and believes he has more to offer in the world. If you’ve ever been in this place, you know that isolation and loneliness are certainly emotions that are present—and that they have nothing to do with how many people are or aren’t in your life. This client’s personal connections are strong. What’s beneath his loneliness is a longing for greater meaning.
Had the coach not examined the evidence–the facts about her client’s life–perhaps she would have jumped to the conclusion that the issue was lack of human connection. Not a bad guess for the times we’re in, but not an assessment that would have met the client where he was, sensed into his world, or inspired practices to help him grow in the ways he wants and needs to.
How evidence helps us with compassion
Seeking evidence can help us not only in coaching, but in our day-to-day interactions as well–especially as it relates to compassion. In the midst of our busy lives, there are likely many moments when we make an assumption about what might be happening in a situation or with another person without any evidence at all that it is true.
Think of a time that an assumption (“they’re mad at me” or “they have no idea what is going on” or “they don’t care” or “there’s no point to this'') influenced an interaction, a day, or a whole relationship? Looking back, what evidence do you have that that was indeed the truth?
Moreover, how often have you made judgments about yourself that have no evidence to support them? “I’m stupid.” “I’m the only one who can do it.” “There’s no way I can possibly do it.” “I have to save this person.” “I’m in trouble.” Unchecked, where have these assessments led? What kinds of decisions have you made based on them? How have you behaved?
Maybe you are holding just such a conclusion in your mind right now, when a little more searching for evidence may bring spaciousness and more possibility.
Compassion v. Empathy
In Compassionate Leadership: How to do Hard Things in Human Way by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, the authors give us an important distinction between compassion and empathy:
The two terms differ in that empathy is an emotion and compassion is an intention. Empathy is when we see someone suffer, take on the suffering they experience, and suffer together with them. This, again, is a good, altruistic response. very human and noble thing to do. However, it does not necessarily help the other person, except for possibly feeling less alone in experiencing the difficulty…But compassion is different. Compassion is to take a step away from empathy and ask ourselves what we can do to support the person who is suffering. In this way, compassion is an intention.
By the same token, empathy may actually cloud our experience of a person or situation if we act simply on what we feel about something. Empathy can inform heart-based compassion, which in turn can lead to action. However, action based purely on empathy can be misguided and possibly even harmful. Evidence can help us distinguish between automatic response and intelligent intervention–with our colleagues, our clients, our families, and beyond.
A practice for you
Here is a way to explore this for yourself. As you move through your day, notice when assumptions or judgments automatically arise. You might jot them down to examine later or, if there’s room, you can explore them in the moment. Either way, reflecting on the assumption or judgment, ask yourself these questions:
- What were my feelings about what was happening?
- What evidence do I have that this is what was really going on? (Really look–there might indeed be something that corroborates your judgment)
- How do my feelings align with the evidence?
- Based on all this, is there an action I can take to help the person or improve the situation?
We hope this exploration brings some greater ease and joy to your days.
Joy Reichart is the Communications Director at New Ventures West in San Francisco.
Learn powerful, evidence-based ways of assessing a client in Foundations of Coaching, our virtual introductory program. Readers of this blog are welcome to take $100 off tuition using the coupon code MINDFULLEADER at checkout.