A while back, my esteemed colleague and good pal Dr. Emily Weiss issued a challenge—to join her in trying to be more empathetic. It’s a powerful ask, though not necessarily an easy one to step up to.
I’ve been thinking about empathy and compassion—and boundaries—a lot lately. After watching this short conversation with the brilliant Dr. Brene Brown, and then sharing it with just about anyone who would watch, listen or tolerate my enthusiasm, it’s shown up in my conversations, my writing and in the teaching and speaking I’ve done since. Take six minutes and give it a chance—you won’t regret it.
Dr. Brown offers up a host of insightful gems, including my favorite question of late:
“What if people are doing the best they can?”
She also takes a whack at defining both compassion and empathy. The latter she characterizes as “the skill set to bring compassion alive,” and as the way in which we “communicate that deep love for people ... so they know they’re not alone.” She also emphasizes that empathy is something we can teach, skills we can consciously hone. By her definition, compassion is a little trickier.
Dr. Brown characterizes compassion as “a deeply held belief that we’re inextricably connected to each other by something rooted in love and goodness.” While understood that way, compassion might be tough to teach, but it sure sounds like something we can (at least) cultivate.
Instead of “What is wrong with people?,” try “What must be happening in their lives to make them feel so desperate?
In a workshop I’ve given around the country, I shared Dr. Brown’s interview and asked people to focus on that powerful question: What if people are doing the best they can?
To me, that question—and the emotional and intellectual process it sparks if we really engage it— is the sweet spot between compassion and empathy.
When we encounter a difficult situation in our work (in other words, daily), responding to it with this question—with this assumption—has a genuinely transformative power.
Someone arrives to relinquish a 14-year-old diabetic cat. You get to work in the morning to find a box of kittens or a dog leashed to the door with a hastily scribbled note (or no note at all) describing why they were left behind. A potential adopter insists on a particular pet; you’re convinced it’s a terrible idea.
Safe to assume plenty of us have experienced scenarios like these, right? Probably also not a stretch to imagine that our reactions have sounded something like:
“How could they? What is WRONG with people?”
“They just don’t get it.”
“Why can’t they see what a bad choice they’re making/have made?”
But what if we started —before we leapt to those reactions —with the powerful assumption that maybe, just maybe, they’re doing or have done the best they can? What if our default was the benefit of the doubt? What if our knee-jerk was, instead, to exercise compassion?
Might our responses—and I’m deliberately distinguishing between reaction and response here (though that’s a topic for another post!)—sound something more like:
“They must be heartbroken. I wonder if there is anything we can do to support their bond—or at least make this goodbye a little easier.”
“I’m so glad we’re here to lend a hand during a painful time.”
“What must have been happening in their lives to make them feel so desperate?”
“Love’s a funny thing—clearly they see something in this pet that resonates for them.”
Pretty different, right? But also incredibly intentional. You’ve got to pose that question to yourself and then consider the answer. It’s not a magic spell, but wow is it a powerful way to interrupt a reactive judgment—not to mention a means to cultivate compassion and practice empathy for and with the people who seek our support and services.
The first step to interrupting a judgment and cultivating compassion
We’ve been talking and thinking about these concepts a lot here at the ASPCA, and we’ve got more to come your way in the near future, including a powerful new position statement on the work and the imperative to do what we can to keep people and pets together. Stay tuned!
I’ve no doubt I’ll be revisiting this conversation with Dr. Brown, both on my own and probably back here in this space—at least a few times in the near future. In the meantime, I’m gonna try to keep asking myself that question, and engaging myself in a little reflection. And I’ll echo Dr. Weiss, too: Do you care? And will you join me?
B.J. Rogers, CAWA
ASPCA Vice President, ProLearning
With nearly 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector—and more than a decade of leadership in animal welfare—Rogers oversees the team responsible for the ASPCA’s field-facing communication, including ASPCApro.org, field-facing social media and online learning. As a former shelter chief executive whose experiences working in politics, higher education, LGBTQ youth advocacy and animal welfare have convinced him that people are the solution, not the problem.
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