Compassion Fatigue

If my client is experiencing compassion-fatigue, how do I spot it, what might it tell me about their situation, and what should we do about it?

As I write this, it’s at the darkest, coldest time of year here in the northern hemisphere. Things seem strained, people feel under pressure and there are global-messages of scarcity, conflict and new cold wars.

No surprise then, that occasionally I’m seeing signs of compassion-fatigue in my clients. That said, compassion-fatigue is something that doesn’t need a global-background to happen – individual circumstances can bring it on at other times too.

Why would you be concerned about this as a coach?

My stake in the ground is that compassion is an integral part of a fully-functioning, well-rounded person and an essential element of great leadership. If it’s missing then not only is my client not able to be a well-rounded person or a good leader, but there is probably something in their life and work that is causing them harm. And we need to deal with it.

Other professionals face this too. I recently saw a great example with my accountants, dealing with a really difficult client. That client’s lack of compassion was the signal for the accountants (with great compassion themselves) to gently step-in and find out more about just what business problems their client was facing.

I want to say a little something about what compassion is – and how it fits with other similar sounding ‘states’ – before exploring how to spot compassion-fatigue and what it tells me about my client.

  • Sympathy is a heightened awareness of somebody else’s hurt. It typically sounds like this: ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or ‘I hope you are coping well.’
  • Empathy is the attempt to understand and even vicariously experience another person’s situation and emotional state – ‘being in another person’s shoes’. It focuses on experience and often reads like this: ‘It sounds like you had a bad day at the office and you probably need a break’.
  • Compassion is where someone feels empathy and then a desire to help alleviate the suffering of the other person. The emphasis here is on action. It typically sounds like this: ‘I can feel how hard it must be to go through this alone. Is there any way I can help?’

So there’s this sense that compassion includes both the awareness and understanding in sympathy and empathy – and then chooses (whether or not and how) to go beyond that into action.

Now I need to be aware of some clients’ tendency to be the ‘hero’ (click here to read my article on that) or to be always helping. But set that aside for a moment and assume that’s not the case here.

If I’m spotting compassion-fatigue, what I’m seeing and hearing in my client is an awareness (and possibly understanding) of somebody else’s pain. But no desire to get into action about it. Actually, I’ll probably see and hear more than that – closer to anger, frustration or despair at somebody else’s pain. Phrases like:

“Why is that idiot always in such a mess?

I’m sick of the fact that they can’t sort themselves out

I can’t always be the one who has to take care of things”

When I see or hear anything like that, my coaching alarm bells start ringing. My intention at this point is to make space for some exploration about my client’s own pain. It doesn’t have to be right then and there.

It also doesn’t need to be a sledge-hammer approach (“Sounds to me like you’re overloaded yourself – you need to deal with that first!”). Nor does it need to tiptoe around it (“How are things for you personally right now”). Although both of those approaches could be appropriate depending on my client’s level of self-awareness and reality-sense.

And occasionally I like to talk about the coaching process that’s going on in my head: “You know, when I hear that kind of complaint about somebody else’s pain, from somebody like you who is normally strong and compassionate, it makes me wonder what’s going on. What suffering we all carry around and that sometimes gets so heavy we don’t feel able to help carry other people any more.” – or some rubbish like that!

Bottom-line: if my client is angry, frustrated or in despair at somebody else’s plight, then there’s a good chance they are suffering themselves. They may not have realised it yet or their way of coping might be to deny it, but it is definitely worth exploring.


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers