Emotional State #3: Compassion

The following post is an excerpt from “Eve of Influence: Keys to unlocking exceptional leadership in women”. In this book, Leadership Zone Founder and Director Liz McCoy provides a practical guide to increasing leadership expertise and how to foster the development of compassionate, kind and connected workplaces. Eve of Influence is for the women who are fully committed to their leadership journey.  For women who are willing to go deep, and work on themselves for the betterment of those they influence and guide.  

In this post, Liz discusses compassion – the third of three ‘emotional states’ and provides practical advice on how to consciously amplify your compassion for a greater human experience.

If you would like to read the entire book, I invited you to download it here.


Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.
¾ Henri Nouwen

One of the most important things you can do on this earth is let people know they are not alone. But be warned, when we sign up for compassion, we are going to have homework.

Compassion is not empathy or sympathy. It does not look like allowing someone to avoid taking responsibility for themselves. In fact, Joan Halifax (in a fabulous TED talk) goes so far as to say pity, moral outrage and fear are the enemies of compassion.

What it does look like is recognising the struggle; acknowledging the challenge and getting alongside.

It is the ability to stand strong and acknowledge that we are not separate from the suffering. It is being open to the world as it is, and to have an undefended heart.

Buddhist teaching refers to ‘a strong back and soft front’ and I love how this metaphor portrays the discipline of compassion.

A strong back is about composure and our ability to uphold ourselves in the midst of challenging times.  It enables us to maintain a clam spirit with emotional and mental stability.

A soft front is about being open to things as they are. It is about accepting and remaining detached from any idealised outcome. Cultivating a soft heart allows us to be open to the world around us without defending or closing our hearts.

It’s hard though, because it requires the confidence to go with others to a place where they are vulnerable, lonely and often broken. Why it’s difficult is because our natural response to suffering is to swiftly do away with it – either by fleeing or finding a quick cure.

My beautiful Nanna died when she was 101 years old. By that time, her physical body was failing her but her mind remained sharp as a tack. Her decision for no active medical intervention was supported and upheld by the family, and we welcomed her passing as a natural transition for us all.

I adore old people, I always have. Whenever I have the honor of caring for an elderly person who has made the same decision that our family did – of palliation over active treatment – my heart connects on a whole new level. I step into the pain, feeling the fear, but doing it anyway. I’ve learned to acknowledge the suffering that goes with grief and loss, and step in all the same. I feel privileged to hold that family with my strong back and soft front.

Can you imagine being held like that? To be met exactly where you are, in the midst of your challenges? The Dalai Lama tells us ‘love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.’

Are you willing to be a source of compassion for those around you? What would you be saying to yourself to switch on compassion? Do you recognise the emotional state in yourself?

As with curiosity and kindness, I have collected a few pearls of wisdom:

  • I am not here to judge
  • I too have struggles
  • We are the same
  • We are one

Amplifying compassion allows for greater human connection than any other experience.

Your THIRD challenge:

Take the time to notice the need for compassion towards those around you. It will involve you slowing down and creating sufficient space for you to see it. I know it will show up because lots of people around us are hurting. Take a moment now to consider and create your thinking in this space.

I promise that the evolution of your strong back and soft front will deepen and strengthen all of your relationships for the better.

Socrates is credited with saying ‘an unreflected experience is a lost experience.’ To him, the examined life was the attainment of wisdom and intellectual humility. I believe our greatest growth comes through considered reflection.

As you step further into your journey of human connection and yin leadership, I would encourage you to further develop this reflective practice. How are people responding to your curiosity? What are you hearing as an output of your kindness? What are you noticing as you practice compassion?

My days of operating in robot-mode are a distant memory. Today my number one value is CONNECTION and I am certainly a better leader for it.

Closing challenge

Awareness is 90% of the journey. And now you know…

¾ It’s not that we need more female leaders, rather we need more feminine attributes as they form the basis of strong relationship orientated leadership – the leadership style that is proving to be most effective in our today’s workplace.

Leadership in this age demands more of us than it ever has before. It continues to demand structure and results. It continues to demand innovation and flexibility. It also now demands a greater awareness of – and willingness to embrace – human connection.

I trust you will be that leader? A daily practice involving growing curiosity, kindness and compassion will set you apart not only as a leader, but certainly as a human being.