On Kindness and Compassion


This weekend, I’ve been reflecting a lot on kindness and the way it impacts on my job. On Friday,  I had a conversation with someone I work with (in a different organisation) in which they demonstrated a level of kindness towards me that I was not expecting in the context of our previous conversations and professional relationship. It surprised me. They could have dealt with the situation in many different ways, as could I, but the kindness took me aback and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

We hear a lot about the need for compassion in health and social care. There has been a ‘lack of compassion’. After the Francis Report publication, organisations within the NHS but on a broader level have been asking about whether there has been a deficit of compassion shown in services. I’m far from convinced of it. Cruelty happens. Neglect happens. Organisations develop toxic cultures. Does that mean there is a general lack of compassion by staff who do their jobs on a day to day basis? I don’t think so. I’m also confused by the language that is used.

I like to think I’m a kind, compassionate person. I try to be. I wonder though, what kindness/compassion is in the role that I have and have had and whether they are the same thing. Wikipedia tells me

English noun compassion, meaning to suffer together with, comes from Latin. Its prefix com- comes directly from com, an archaic version of the Latin preposition and affix cum (= with); the -passion segment is derived from passus, past participle of the deponent verb patois, patī, passus sum.

Whereas kindness is again, according to Wikipedia

a behavior marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and concern for others. It is known as a virtue, and recognized as a value in many cultures and religions (see ethics in religion). Research has shown that acts of kindness does not only benefit receivers of the kind act, but also the giver, as a result of the release of neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of contentment and relaxation when such acts are committed

Would we rather, on these definitions, that someone treat us with kindness or compassion? Personally, I’d go for the first. I have no desire for someone else to feel my pain or suffer with or alongside me. When I was working with people on a daily basis, we used the rule of thumb about treating people as you would like to be treated or as you would like a member of your family to be treated. As a simple baseline, it’s a good start and it’s easy to understand but perhaps we need to look beyond the self and beyond the ‘compassion’ which is about putting yourself in other people’s shoes or imagining they are in your shoes, and thinking how we treat people to create a better, more caring, kinder society as a whole. Compassion, perhaps, is about the individual but kindness can be broadened out to a wider group of people that we might not ‘feel’ for.

If we are looking at the word, compassion and compassionate in terms of the care I delivered when I was in a social work role, I’d like to think that I regarded everyone I worked with respect and kindness. Was I always able to feel their difficulties and suffer with them? I hope not as it would have burnt me out far earlier but I think I did my job well and tried to remember that I was in the position of power that flitted in and out of the lives of others having significant influence on their wellbeing and making fundamental decisions which I never took lightly. However, I had bad days too. I remember one time when I was annoyed with someone whom I was working with. It was a family member of a man I was working with and they had acted in a way that I thought had not been helpful. I remember actively biting my tongue and being short with them. I returned to the office and had a long chat with my manager. I phoned them and apologised. I was not compassionate. I was not kind. I don’t think it made me a bad person but gives us an awareness that people who see themselves as compassionate (however that’s defined in the context) can act in ways that aren’t. Does that mean the system is broken or that the people in the systems are human and have good days and bad days? Of course, cruelty and neglect are not ‘bad day’ things but I have never come across anyone working in health and social care who has not considered themselves ‘compassionate’ or ‘kind’ but sometimes that isn’t necessarily what I have seen in their actions.

So telling people to ‘be more compassionate’ doesn’t work. Telling people to ‘think more’, doesn’t work because we all think, to a large extent that we are doing our best.

Teaching Compassion

I’m far from convinced that organisations need to buy in external agencies to ‘teach compassion’. My gut feeling is that there is something of the snake oil salesman approach to those who peddle the ability to ‘teach’ organisations how to be compassionate. It’s not rocket science, as we like to say. I don’t think anyone (apart from the few who fall into the ‘cruel’ group for which no teaching will work) believe we are not kind or don’t want to be kind. We need space to develop kindness and in my view that comes through reflection. Just as I’ve spent a day or so, reflecting on a very simple act of kindness towards me, it has led me to think about how I can be kinder, in unexpected ways, to and with those people and organisations I work with. So one act towards me has had a ripple effect. Similarly others, if they have that space, can think about how they have been influenced by kindness and thought from others in professional and personal settings and how that can be passed on.

Are organisations needing to buy in external consultancy firms to do this? I hope not. My hope is that any organisation in this ‘trade’ has sufficient professional expertise to grow their own reflective practice. It’s far cheaper and more productive to ask your own staff what would help them than getting a consultancy in to tick the ‘done compassion training’ box and tell them. I’d have far more confidence in any organisation that sourced the space and time to embed reflective practice over one that bought in a firm and got 100% compliance with ‘compassion training’.  The key is that kindness and thoughtfulness start at Board level. If staff feel engaged with an organisation and a part of it, they want to do their best – sometimes they do, even if they don’t feel connected but it’s better for everyone if we do.

Kindness needs to drip down. Focusing on value based recruitment for health care assistants is great. Blaming health care assistants for all the problems in organisations when a lack of compassion has been identified is not. Staff treat people how they are treated. I’ve worked in different organisations and seen that those that have the best cultures are the ones that have most visible and responsive leaderships. Then the rest will follow. Staff teams that are well-led will filter out the team members who are less thoughtful in their approaches. Those that are poorly led will embed poor practice and culture. It doesn’t need any fancy training sessions to ‘teach’ that. It just needs, in my opinion, thought and time to reflect.

Reflection

I’m aware that I can sound like a broken record at times, but fundamentally, I think the gap that is perceived to exist in kindness and care can be solved through reflective practice. The problem comes with the space that is given for individual staff members and organisations to reflect and the value given to it within the world that is driven by cuts and outputs. To ignore the need for reflection and consideration though, leaves individual practitioners and organisations at a far higher risk of delivering care that is thoughtless. The wellbeing of staff knocks on directly to the wellbeing of patients or people who receiving services from an organisation. A stressed and anxious social worker will by less effective, less kind, perhaps, than one who feels that they are a part of an organisation that shares their values. I know it’s easier said than done. In my previous team, we took time to talk through cases with each other, even when we were at our busiest because it made us stop – and think – about what we were doing and the impact that it had. The skills we learn to reflect and reflect well and often are imperative to good and safe systems. Reflection should also allow space to challenge practices within organisations which are faulty or unkind. We need to look after ourselves as practitioners and we need to demand it from our employers if they do not provide it.

Kindness

So back to the initial kindness that was shown towards me. It made me realise what a difference it can make especially when it comes from an unexpected source. In my theme of hope for the new year, I think that I’m going to try and be kinder, if I can, for as much as I can, to those I work with and around. While kindness cannot solve the financial difficulties the sector finds itself it, it might be able to make the work environment more pleasant and more caring for those who use the services proved  but also for those who work within them, at all levels.

3 thoughts on “On Kindness and Compassion

  1. Great blog. said it before, but Will say it again because I beleive it to be true: it’s nice to be important but more important to be nice.

    P.s agree beware salesmen selling compassionate leadership and managment snake oil!

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