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  • Writer's pictureSigne Sorensen

How to Demonstrate Authentic Compassion and Avoid Box-Ticking Empathy




Compassion is about letting the other person lead, giving them the space to decide what they need and then attempt to provide that in whatever way you can.

Christina Sin


In this conversation, Christina Sin shares her thoughts on the importance of letting the other person lead in demonstrating compassion. She explains why backing up words with tangible action is crucial. It moves from a box-ticking exercise to more authentic compassion. We discuss what compassion might look like in practice. We discuss this at both an individual and organisational level.


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This article features in a series of interviews where Signe Jung Sorensen explores how purpose-driven professionals who are dedicated to contribute towards a just, equitable and sustainable world relate to the notion of “compassion”. What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? This series is dedicated to professionals offering their personal stories and perspectives.


 

Christina Sin has worked in fundraising and operations in the non-profit world for over a decade and has her bachelors and masters from the George Washington University. She currently works at the ONE Campaign as a Global Operations Manager and provides grant making assistance at Canary, a financial health start-up. She is passionate about financial stability and working towards a world where everyone has access to basic financial literacy and can make empowered decisions. Christina is an avid movie fan and also loves watching documentaries on all topics.


 

SJ: What compelled you to have a conversation about compassion with me?


CS: The pandemic has highlighted a lot of wonderful things about humanity. At the same time, it has also made it clearer to me where compassion can be expressed without necessarily acting on it.


SJ: What is a concrete example of that?


CS: In the sphere of my personal relationships for example, I have noticed that some people have tended to get laser-focused on their own situation without as much room to talk about the issues that other people are facing. I have longed for more compassion in how we talk about other people’s situation during this pandemic and bringing in more thoughtfulness.


SJ: How is thoughtfulness and compassion related for you?


CS: I see someone who is compassionate as someone who is kind and thoughtful of other people.


Rather than viewing the world with just my perspective, my needs, my opinions, compassion is about trying to be more mindful of the scenarios and situations that other people are in.

This also translates into less harsh judgements and assessments about others.


SJ: What does compassion look like to you?


CS: I have realised that compassion can take many different forms depending on the person who is giving it and the person who is receiving it. I might think that I am being compassionate but the person who is receiving it might not view it the same way.


For example, there have been a few instances where I would check in on a friend and ask about how job hunting was going and later realised, that the number of times I was checking in brought my friend more anxiety. The topic was not something she wanted to necessarily talk about all the time.


In a work setting for example, compassion could look like a manager responding to the rise of COVID19 Asian American hate crimes by checking in and simply giving me space to choose whether I want to talk about it. Knowing that a manager is there to listen and to provide support should I need it feels like a compassionate environment.


I think true compassion is letting the other person lead, giving them the space to decide what they need and then attempt to provide that in whatever way you can.

Backing up words with tangible action is crucial.


SJ: Tell me more about the importance of letting the other person lead.


CS: It can to some extent get dangerous imagining yourself in another person’s shoes because there will be situations where you will have no idea about the lived experience of the other person. This may lead you to make certain assumptions.


Compassion is therefore about letting the other person be the expert of their lived experience and then thinking about what I can do with my status and privilege and position in life to help that person live in a world where that is less of a problem.

Of course, a certain level of relatedness to a particular issue can be helpful as long as it does not turn into a tunnel vision about how things should be done for another person based on your own experience.


SJ: So, in a way we could say compassion is about holding the space for another person, helping them find their own way without making any assumptions. To me, this sounds a bit like coaching although this process usually involves taking a person from point A to point B, which they have defined for themselves. What are your thoughts about compassion and coaching?


CS: I think you can lead a person from A to B but if you lead with compassion, the journey will look quite different depending on the person. For example, I might have the same exact goal as Annie, but Annie and I might get there at different times. We might get there through vastly different routes. With “compassionate” coaching, you are guiding and helping based on the information that the person is giving you and catering to their individual needs.


SJ: Why do you think compassion is so important?


I think compassion is important in our lives because we cannot do things alone.

CS: You need people around you to help think about things. This is particularly relevant in America which in some ways can be a very individualistic society.


I think there is an ingrained narrative around “oh, you should be able to figure it out on your own” when really it is “no, I need someone who is compassionate and who will help me figure things out because human beings are not meant to do things alone”. We need a sense of community.


SJ: I think there lies incredible strength in asking for help, which can often be one of the most self-compassionate things we can do. What is the number one challenge you see for bringing forth more compassion in society?


CS: I see a challenge in uncovering more “authentic” compassion. I think compassion is quite “me”-focused and a box that is there to be ticked for some people.


Sometimes the most compassionate act can be to listen to someone but after a while, it must go beyond listening to understanding what might be physically required to meet another person’s need.

At an organisational level for example, when the George Floyd case emerged, many companies and institutions released statements about how terrible this was. However, a statement does not fix anything and is therefore not fully compassionate. The bare minimum is to express how awful it is that black people in America get killed unlawfully.


The real question lies in: As leaders, what actual action are you going to take to back up your claims that this is not right for the country?

Change in some way is needed to complete compassion. Compassion is not just a box that has been ticked because you put up the blackout post for Black Lives Matter on social media.


SJ: What do you think is needed to move away from “box-checking compassion” to more authentic compassion?


CS: To a degree, being authentically compassionate takes a lot of work and can put us in quite uncomfortable situations.


We may need to push ourselves a little to do an action or have a conversation that is not easy.

Most people and organisations shy away from this because it feels less convenient and ultimately because we fear failure.


If we go through the efforts of doing our internal checks, we can then become afraid of saying the wrong thing and — ultimately — failure.


We need to accept that there will be times when we mess up and where we get it wrong. None of us are perfect.

Dealing with our risk aversion is needed for compassion to go beyond well-meaning words.


SJ: What else would you like to share about this topic?


CS: Through this conversation I am realising that human beings are quite judgemental. We make assumptions about each other all the time — possibly because our brains are wired this way to fill in the blanks.


I think compassion is hard to do right because it takes time and is ever evolving.

It changes depending on the person or the organisation and therefore cannot be thought of as a “one size fits all” concept. I also think that being a compassionate person requires good listening skills, which I perceive as an acute need in our society.


If you listen to people — really listen — it is easier to come up with actions that might be helpful or to provide suggestions.

The question people often ask to be compassionate is “what can I do to support you?”. This question is helpful but also puts the burden on the person who is going through the problem to come up with the solution. The person in question may already have a lot on their plate or on their mind so sometimes, the compassionate action can also be to notice what they may need and offer it to them.


I have seen this in supporting people through grief for example. After the loss of a loved one, people often do not have the capacity to consider what they need support or help with. In this case, asking simpler and more action-oriented questions such as “can I bring dinner over?” may offer more immediate compassion.


SJ: Ah, so it may be that some judgement is needed on what may help a person in distress?


CS: Yes. If you notice through conversations with a person that they are stressed about X, Y and Z, I think it is compassionate to then offer to lighten the burden for them in a specific way.


It can be easier for people to accept an offer than to ask for help — especially in times of crisis.

You are still supporting based on their lead, figuring out what he/she might need and how to meet that need through questions. You might ask the wrong questions at some points, but I think this is a skill — and you cannot improve a skill without practice.


 

This conversation is based on Christina Sin’s own personal views. They do not represent the views of the ONE Campaign, Canary or any organisation that Christina has worked for previously.


 

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