Compassion enables tough conversations

We’ve been taught in Western culture to view compassion as soft and passive. We think that somehow being compassionate makes us spineless people who never take a stand. But nothing could be further from the truth. Compassion actually enables tough conversations because it allows us to have them without anger—to hold people accountable with purity of intent. It allows leaders to deal with tricky discussions with self-assurance and clarity, and can result in better-than-anticipated outcomes.

The importance of accountability

Compassion in action can look direct and tough. Allowing people to break agreements and fail in their performance without holding them accountable isn’t compassion at all—it’s fear and avoidance.

But when we hold people accountable compassionately, we do so with a complete absence of anger, which leads to greater wisdom. We aren’t blaming or shaming—we’re doing what is best for the individual and the organisation with love and honesty. We’re seeing them with an understanding heart while saying what needs to be said because dishonesty leads to broken trust.

Tough honesty

Mindfulness teacher Patrick Kearney explains that, “Compassion is the intention and action to end the suffering of people. So you might think a person is suffering and your wisdom tells you that what this person needs is a dose of tough honesty. That would snap them out of their suffering. So you apply the medicine.”

A marketing manager at an UK electronic technologies firm explains how she had to learn fierce compassion in order to give honest feedback. She said, “Ten years ago I didn’t deal with problems that needed to be faced … I’d see situations where I would think, ‘Someone should really speak to that person,’ or ‘Something really needs to happen here.’ No one would and then it would manifest into something that’s 3 times harder to deal with than if it had been nipped in the bud.

“It starts with being aware of the person and where they are in life. Sometimes they don’t know how to move on or change. So those failures in performance or behaviour have to be addressed immediately. Everyone has their own life journey and it’s part of their journey. My job as a leader is to give them the opportunity to change, and to do so in a compassionate, fair, honest and open way … Very often, people will say to me, ‘You’re quite straight talking.’ And I am, because I know the kindest choice is to actually honour people with honesty. To hold back is a fearful choice and it is robbing people from knowing what is really going on, where they really stand … honesty and compassion belong together.”

Create a nurturing environment

With compassion, your intention is pure and your speech is clear and anger-free. Your tough conversations are held with the deep desire for the welfare and happiness of the other person—not to make yourself feel better or alleviate your feelings of insecurity or powerlessness. Another client of mine put it this way, “Tough love is about having compassion for people and creating enough trust so that you can have a conversation that helps them become more conscious and aware of what’s happening. They are then able to make the necessary changes. It’s about creating a nurturing environment where people feel they can be vulnerable and authentic with each other. People have to know you care about them, and when they do they are so much more open to honest feedback.”

Fierce compassion helps leaders keep people accountable through honest, anger-free conversations and loving feedback. As a result, people feel honoured and more open to change.