5 simple ways to be more compassionate

Beverly Davenport

UC Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

Stories of compassion inspire us. They reaffirm our belief in the goodness of people and give us hope in the possibilities of a just world.

Compassion is fundamentally about thinking in terms of others and acting to reduce or prevent their pain and suffering. But feeling for another is not enough; compassion is about action. It is the emotion work we must do to manage meaningful relationships.

 In its most simple form, compassion is expressed through the words we choose. Words soothe, they comfort, they heal, they restore, they reduce hurt, they remind ourselves and others what really matters. They are how we talk a compassionate reality into being.

So how do we communicate in more civil and compassionate ways that improve relationships, workplaces and individuals’ health and well-being?

  1. Listen with intention. Listen with the intent to understand the needs of others. Pay close attention. It’s a high compliment to give someone your undivided attention. Suspend judgment. Refrain from formulating opinions until you really know. Remember. Use what you heard in later conversations. In effect, listening intently is a micro-affirmation, a form of compassion that says you care.
  2. Speak in the collective “we.” Consider using inclusive pronouns. Avoid putting yourself at the center of talk. You can’t know how the other thinks and feels if you don’t ask, if you don’t listen, if you don’t speak and think in the collective “we.”
  3. Be mindful of the impact you have on others. Research shows that repeated levels of what might be considered low levels of incivility — disregard, exclusion, interruptions, ignoring, cutting-off or marginalizing — may be more harmful than aggressive insults, name-calling, threats and intimidation. All forms of incivility over time damage self-esteem and induce social, emotional and even physical pain and suffering. When environments are characterized by unrestrained emotional tirades, one kind word can change a person’s entire day. 
  4. Build and guard trust. Trust is an act of compassion that demonstrates care. It is developed and maintained through an honest, open, expressed concern for the other. If trust is violated, it is very slowly, if ever, repaired. Trust violations are so very painful, and being lied to causes a great deal of suffering. What might seem like small acts of compassion — apologies, contrition, explanations — can help reduce pain, repair relationships and restore trust.
  5. Say “thank you.” Expressing gratitude and appreciation reminds people that they and their contributions, talents, abilities and judgment matter. If compassion is, at its root, about soothing suffering and pain, simply saying thank you helps ease people’s uncertainty about their worth. It is also one of the best ways to build self-esteem and create a culture of respect.

Bevely Davenport has published three books and authored more than 100 papers on organizational communication and workplace civility.