6 Exercises To Strengthen Compassionate Leadership

Want loyal, dedicated, and passionate employees? Be a loyal, dedicated, and passionate boss. Here are some tools to develop well-being in your workplace through better communication.

When you use compassionate communication in your conversations, something quite surprising occurs: both your brain and the brain of the person you're talking to begin to align themselves with each other. This special bond is a phenomenon referred to as "neural resonance," and in this enhanced state of mutual attunement, two people can accomplish remarkable things together. Why? Because it eliminates the natural defensiveness that normally exists when people casually converse.

The capacity to deeply relate to others is a key to all forms of relational success--at work and at home. If you find yourself in the position of overseeing others--be they your employees or your children--remember this: leaders who give the least amount of positive guidance to their subordinates are less successful in achieving their organizations' goals, and the employees are unhappier with their work. Indeed, by not taking an active role in dialogue and teamwork building, they generate more interpersonal conflicts within their groups. Here are 6 steps to work on to become a more compassionate leader. 

Step 1: Stay Present

When you focus intently on your breathing and relaxation, you pull your attention into the present moment. When we become completely absorbed in something as simple as breathing or relaxing a specific part of our body, the inner speech of everyday consciousness stops, at least momentarily, and this allows us to become aware of the subtle things that are immediately happening around us. We hear sounds we rarely notice, we feel more sensations in our body, and if we bring this "presentness" into a conversation, we hear more clearly the subtle tones of voice that give emotional meaning to the speaker's words.

Step 2: Cultivate Inner Silence

Most of us are only able to stay relaxed and in the present moment for brief periods of time. Soon it gets interrupted by our inner speech. Research shows that you can suppress those distracting feelings and thoughts, but you have to practice doing it over and over until you gain control.

The more you consciously think about not thinking--as a formal training exercise--the more you gain voluntary control over the brain's spontaneous cascade of inner speech and cognition. We especially need to develop the skill to remain silent so that we can give our fullest attention to what other people say. Unconsciously they will know when we're distracted by our inner speech, and the lack of interest they perceive will make them distance themselves from you. Thus in active communication, silence is not the enemy. 

Step 3: Access a Pleasant Memory

It's best to enter a conversation with an inviting expression that conveys kindness, compassion, and interest. But as we explained in the previous chapter, this facial expression cannot be faked. It can be elicited by tapping into a pleasant memory, particularly one that involves people you deeply love and respect. This memory softens the muscles around your eyes and evokes a gentle half smile on your face.

When another person sees this expression, it stimulates a feeling of trust in their brain. The recollection of pleasant memories will also release pleasure chemicals throughout your own body and brain, and this will take you into an even deeper state of relaxation. When you look directly into the other person's eyes as you maintain this loving memory, they will want to engage you in a dialogue. Their facial expression will resonate with yours, and this will deepen the sense of contentment and satisfaction in both of you. As researchers at Loyola University Chicago demonstrated, contentment gives rise to mutually benevolent engagements.

Step 4: Observe Nonverbal Cues

"Keep your eyes on the ball." It's an expression used in sports and often applied to business, but when it comes to interpersonal relationships, it's essential to keep your eyes on the individual you are conversing with in order to discern the many nonverbal messages we constantly send to others. However, this does not mean that you should gaze unceasingly at the other person--that could feel invasive--but if you maintain softness in your eyes, generated by a pleasant memory, the other person won't want to take their eyes off you!

Eye contact stimulates the social-network circuits in your brain. It decreases the stress chemical cortisol, and it increases oxytocin, a neurochemical that enhances empathy, social cooperation, and positive communication.

Step 5: Speak Briefly

Compassionate communication has a basic rule: whenever possible, limit your speaking to thirty seconds or less. And if you need to communicate something essential to the listener, break your information into even smaller segments--a sentence or two--then wait for the person to acknowledge that they've understood you.

It's a hard concept to embrace. Why? The best reason we know of is that our busy minds have not been able to clearly formulate the essence of what we want to convey, so we babble on, externalizing the flow of information generated by our inner speech.

Our conscious minds can only retain a tiny bit of information, and for thirty seconds or less. Then it's booted out of working memory as a new set of information is uploaded. Our solution: honor the golden rule of consciousness and say only a sentence or two. Then pause and take a small deep breath, to relax. If the other person remains silent, say another sentence or two, and then pause again. This allows the other person to join in whenever they feel the need to respond or to ask for clarification. If you must speak for a longer period of time, forewarn the listener. This will encourage them to pay closer attention to you and to ignore their own intrusive inner speech.

Step 6: Listen Deeply

To listen deeply and fully, you must train your mind to stay focused on the person who is speaking: their words, tone, gestures, facial cues--everything. It's a great gift to give to someone, since to be fully listened to and understood by others is the most commonly cited deep relationship or communication value.

When the other person pauses--and hopefully they'll have enough self-awareness not to ramble on and on--you'll need to respond specifically to what they just said. If you shift the conversation to what you were previously saying, or to a different topic, it will interrupt the neurological "coherence" between the two of you, and the flow of your dialogue will be broken.

When practicing compassionate communication, there's usually no need to interrupt. If the other person doesn't stop talking, they may be giving you an important clue. Perhaps their mind is preoccupied, or perhaps they are deeply caught up in their own feelings and thoughts. If this is the case, it's unlikely that they will be able to listen deeply to what you want to say.

Our recommendation is this:

Take compassionate communication techniques into your work and into the highest levels of management you can reach. Show them the research, experiment with your colleagues, and remember: it only takes one effective communicator--one compassionate leader or teacher--to cause a roomful of language-based brains to resonate to the quality of your speech.

Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group Inc., from Words Can Change Your Brain by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman. Copyright 2012 by Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman.

[Image: Flickr user Hien Nguyen]

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7 Comments

  • mBraining

    Excellent article! There are three key skills that leaders need - Compassion, Courage & Creativity, and lots of research to support this. Recently neuroscience has shown we have complex and functional neural networks or 'brains' in the heart and gut. Informed by the neuroscience, we've just completed 2.5 years of behavioral modeling research on the core competencies and functions of the heart and gut brains and found that Compassion is processed by the heart brain, Courage by the gut brain and Creativity in the head brain. So for leaders to access deep levels of connection and compassion, they need to know how to connect with and tune into the deep wisdom and innate intelligence of their heart. The way the three brains operate is also strongly influenced by the autonomic nervous system and the mode (sympathetic, parasympathetic, balanced/coherent) that its in.

    If you are interested in this work, there's a whitepaper available at:

    http://www.mbraining.com/mbit-...

    and you can download a pdf of it at the bottom of that page.

  • Donna Schilder

    Andrew, these exercises are great for helping leaders deepen the level of their communication and compassion.  I'm going to share them with my Leadership Coaching Clients.  Thanks you!!

  • Kent Julian

    Great post, Andrew! Thank you so much for sharing these 6 steps on how to become a more compassionate leader. These ideas for developing well-being in your workplace through better communication will definitely come in handy.

  • Robert Else

    Great article. And: where can I get some of those little porcelain people embracing in the picture? If they are salt/pepper shakers, I want them even more...