Compassion@Work: Respond with Compassion

By Vanessa Hurst

Listening with intent is natural when our focus is in the present moment. This listening might be with our ears to hear words, with our eyes when reading, smelling with our nose, tasting with our mouth, or feeling with any part of our body. With our senses, we are hyperaware to what is occurring. We recognize our potential to react or to respond.

All our gathered information provides the foundation for compassionate response. If we follow our usual pattern of conversation, half processed words may burst out of our mouth cutting off another’s words.   Our reactionary comments are not conducive to entering into a dialogue of understanding. We become mired in misunderstanding; the journey to common ground becomes impossible.

A compassionate conversation has three definable parts. It begins with bi-listening — we gather external information while being aware of our judgments, assumptions, and beliefs. The next step, the pause is arguably most important to the conversation. In this time of physical silence, we create our response. The pause begins when the other person stops speaking, and continues as we gather our thoughts and form potential responses and reactions.

During this physical silence and pause in the conversation, we formulate our words. We are ever mindful of the potential impact of what we say. We weave compassion into both our words and the energy behind them. In the pause we decide if our response is compassionate or reactionary.

This pause may be a brief as 15-20 seconds. (This time may not seem so brief when we are in it!) In moments of quiet, we reach into the core of our being and tap into compassion. This moment, no matter how short, provides the time to recognize angst and to choose not to react from it. We de-escalate potentially hurtful reactions.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean that we forego honesty. When we respond in ways that are compassionate, are our words loving, gentle, and true. The timbre and cadence of our voice and our body language clearly models our compassionate stance. We disagree in gentle, non-hurtful ways and ask questions that bring greater understanding. We speak in “I” language and accept responsibility for our beliefs and judgments while respecting the beliefs and views of another.

Practice: Before an upcoming conversation, spend a few moments alone. Focus on your breathing. Be aware of how your mind is pulled by distractions. Name the distractions. Visualize your breath entering your body. With each inhale your body further relaxes. If you have an expectation for the conversation, name it. Open yourself to listening without expectation or agenda.

Enter the conversation. Listen to the external conversation. Pay attention to what judgments, assumptions, and beliefs surface internally.

Take time after the person finishes speaking to gather your thoughts. Before speaking, use the compassion litmus test. Are your words loving, gentle, and kind? Are there any barbs of hurt? If you notice hurt in your response, rescript.   (Compassion requires honesty. Honesty doesn’t have to hurt!)

As you respond, pay particular attention to how your partner responds and reacts through body language and spoken words. Script your response based upon what you notice.

Continue the dialogue using this model of listen with intent, respond with compassion.

Listening with intent and responding with compassion isn’t difficult, but like most life skills, it takes practice.

Practicing compassion,


Vanessa F. Hurst is a Community Builder who consults with organizations to strengthen stakeholder relationships and improve organizational culture.   Her program Listen with Intent, Respond with Compassion creates a rich, dynamic space where trust increases and understanding occurs. Through this experiential training, participants discover what prevents them from listening objectively and with an open mind.

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