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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.


The Motivation Equation

Motivation is like a chain – only as strong as its weakest link. Here’s my top five tips for motivating yourself and others

Motivation is a chain of unconscious questions or judgements that people make about things and is only as strong as its weakest link. Here’s my shorthand for the motivation equation, followed by a look at the questions or judgements that people make, along with my top tips for boosting personal motivation and leading others.

Motivation = Self-Belief x Task-Relevance x Outcome-Value

Self-Belief = “Can I do this task well?”
In my experience, personal self-belief is the single biggest factor in motivation and often overlooked by businesses. I’ve seen people move mountains with very little stake in the outcome, just for the sheer joy of exercising their personal empowerment.

Tip 1: Always start here.

Tip 2: When you need to motivate someone who is lacking in self-belief, remember Roosevelt’s saying: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” There is always something that somebody can do. Great leaders take the time and insight to find out what that is.

Task-Relevance = “If I do this task well, will it lead to the required outcome?”
People come undone at this link for two reasons. One: they only have one strategy, one way of doing things, and they always apply that regardless of relevance. Or two: they get rabbit-in-the-headlights syndrome trying to find the ‘right’ or ‘best’ thing to do.

Tip 3: Leaders need to encourage experimentation and the principle of failing forwards. Help your people to be more like scientists, engineers or artists: think of something to do that might lead to the required outcome, try it, evaluate its success, learn from it.

Outcome-Value = “How much do I personally want that outcome?”
This is the link where leaders most often seem to come undone, because they make assumptions about what’s important to others, based on what they themselves would want. By knowing what is important to individuals it becomes easier to frame the outcome, emphasising the elements which do match what is important to other people.

Tip 4:  For people who like achievement, emphasise the positive aspects of the outcome. For people who like to avoid problems, emphasise how this outcome will avoid something bad. If you’re talking to a group of people, mention both!

People are generally not that good at imagining forward to what things will be like when an outcome is actually achieved. Often, it seems to me, because they are focussed on the first two links in the motivation chain. I don’t think people actually do very much evaluating of what they really want or how things will be after something is achieved.

Tip 5: Good leaders paint a picture of how things will be once an outcome is achieved. They give people a feel for both the positive aspects and the problems-avoided by it (see Tip 4). They talk about what people will see and hear on the outside (the evidence) and how people might feel inside (the intrinsic reward).


Three Leadership Lessons Inspired by Long Walk to Freedom

How do we apply the kind of strength and courage that we know is inside us, and lead other people to victory, when it’s not clear at all who or what the enemy is?

I watched “Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom” recently (great film and book) and thought about Mr Mandela’s early decision to stop being a lawyer, join the ANC and take the fight to the enemy.

For some men, including me, fighting against something is a very energising and satisfying thing to throw yourself into. But for most of us, not living under oppressive regimes and in a time of peace – who is the enemy?

What do you fight against? Who do you resist with the kind of positive intention that Mr Mandela found? How do you gather and lead other people in that kind of selfless resistance when things aren’t so ‘black and white’? How do we apply our full strengths in the workplace?

I think it begins with three relatively small steps, which together are a real leadership tipping-point:

1. What do we stand for?
It’s not enough to resist for the sake of resisting. Find what it is that you believe is worth defending or fighting for. It might be a belief in the way that things should be done or a situation that needs correcting. These are perfectly valid things to tackle in the workplace or outside it.

2. Define the battleground
We may not live under something as malign as the apartheid regime, but injustice, wasted opportunities and distress are around us, if we choose to look. Your battleground need not be a whole nation, but we do need strong people to raise their gaze and see where the fight is.

3. Be like a magnet: Resistance + Attraction
I loved how Mr Mandela used his charm and personality to draw people to him, and it was this charisma that the ANC knew they needed. He made the decision to join an armed resistance and to fight against the regime. But it was his force of attraction that gave the movement its strength and which ultimately enabled him to win over guards at Robin Island and the ruling National Party.


Adventure

How’s your adventure-level? It’s about feeling the rapture of being alive. Without it, we get risky and aggressive leadership.

I woke-up today with a yearning for adventure – which will likely turn into my next long-distance bike ride or something similar.

Adventure training in the British Army is defined as “Activities where the outcome is uncertain” and that seems right to me on an emotional and practical level. I truly believe that until you’ve had some physical experience that involves risk (even if that is a “managed risk”) and venturing into the unknown in some way, then it’s very difficult to feel satisfyingly alive. And it’s not just a once-only experience. It needs regular top-ups.

There have been times when I’ve experienced adventure at work, when there’s been the right combination of challenge and risk and uncertainty and even some physical challenge. But to be honest, adventure for me needs to feel the weather on my face, for my muscles to be challenged and not just my mind – and I just don’t see that happening in an office.

It’s important to consider men’s need for adventure in a work context because I’m sure that some aspects of male leadership – unmanaged risk-taking and aggressively-competitive behaviour – is a by-product of NOT being able to have physical adventure at work.

Joseph Campbell talked about the need to have physical experiences which match what we already know on the inside about how it feels to be really alive.
As he put it: “so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Adventure is also a great way to let out our inner Wildman. Modern life has a tendency to suppress this and yet, as Robert Bly writes, unless we can release the Wildman to remind us of how resourceful and many-sided our masculinity is, it becomes harder and harder to mature as a man and act with responsibility as a leader.


Give some recognition today

International Recognition Day

Some people are just waiting to hear, straight from you, what a difference they make. Don’t let them wait

As I write this, it was recently Blue Monday – officially the most depressing day of the year. Despite that, you and I are still here and still going strong – well done us!

In response and opposition to the whole Blue Monday thing that the news jumps on every year, I’m declaring every day my official International Recognition Day, and I invite you to try it too:

  • Who do you know who would benefit from being reminded how great they are?
  • Who’s been kind, caring or just a good listener?
  • Who has had the kind of attitude towards life, work and other people that made a difference?

When I was a young manager in a big organisation somebody I really valued gave me a great piece of advice. He told me: “Some people are just waiting to hear, straight from you, what a difference they make. And they’ll wait forever if you let them. Telling them now, while you can, is the act of a great leader”.

I haven’t always lived up to that, because of my doubts and fears. Often because I don’t want people to think I’m joking, or because I don’t always believe that I’ve got the ‘right’ to say anything. And sometimes I haven’t done it because that person isn’t always great like that or because the behaviour they showed might not seem like that big a deal. And I wish I’d done it more.

None of those doubts or fears matters on International Recognition Day though, just tell people what an impact they’ve had – I dare you.