Leadership tool: learn to flex your compassion muscles!

At Ed to Save the World, we’re obsessed with figuring out how to unleash the leadership potential both of educators and the students they serve. And we are certain that at the heart of leadership are two skills: compassion and empathy.

That’s right – compassion and empathy are skills.

Compassion is “the emotional response of caring and wanting to help when encountering another’s suffering,” and empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. As we become more compassionate and empathetic, we understand people better and become better solvers of “human” problems. If we want to transform education into an experience that facilitates students changing the world, I can’t imagine a way to do it without these two elements!

Luckily, research has shown that compassion can be consciously practiced and learned. You can, through simple meditation exercises, get better at compassion! 

In a 2013 University of Wisconsin study,

[…] investigators trained young adults to engage in compassion meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering. In the meditation, participants envisioned a time when someone has suffered and then practiced wishing that his or her suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus on compassion such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.”

Participants practiced with different categories of people, first starting with a loved one, someone whom they easily felt compassion for like a friend or family member. Then, they practiced compassion for themselves and, then, a stranger. Finally, they practiced compassion for someone they actively had conflict with called the “difficult person,” such as a troublesome coworker or roommate.

According to University of Wisconsin researcher Helen Weng, writing for fastcoexist.com,

In the session, the compassion we feel for the loved one is used as a kind of home base to then attempt to extend similar levels of compassion to the other people. It’s rare in our everyday lives that we truly contemplate the suffering of strangers or of people we may dislike.

By purposefully practicing the emotional response of caring and wanting to help, participants in this study developed more altruistic behaviors as measured by an increase in their subsequent tendencies to donate money or take action to help the cause of others. They also showed changes in brain activity when responding to the suffering of others. 

Beyond this, participants also felt better about themselves! One even reported:

After compassion training, I feel far greater kindness and self-acceptance towards myself. The harsh self-critic is gradually unraveling.

Clearly, it pays off to flex your compassion muscles! 

Want to learn how? You can download the compassion training audio guides and use them to complete the meditation exercises used in the study for free from the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

Or, check out this book from Dr. Paul Gilbert for more exercises

“The Compassionate Mind reveals the evolutionary and social reasons why our brains react so readily to threats. Because of this tendency, it’s easy to slip into anger, fear, and depression, and compassion can be difficult for us. This is not our fault. However, research has shown that our brains are also hardwired to respond to kindness and compassion. Building on this latest research, this book offers many practical exercises to help deepen compassion towards ourselves and others. Far from fostering emotional weakness, compassion subdues our anger and increases our courage and resilience to depression and anxiety. Wisely used, compassion arms us with the strength to pursue genuine happiness, peace of mind, and peace in the world.” (Amazon.com)

Here’s to creating a more just, sustainable, and healthy world, a little bit of compassion at a time! 

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Categories: Stage 1: Adult Learning and Leadership

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