Can Compassionate Listening Make You More Persuasive?

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on November 21, 2008

No question, life can be awesome.  But, sometimes, life is just awful.  Who can’t feel a little compassion? 

These are tough times, increasingly so, for many people.  Sure, with motivation and some good luck, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, recover from almost any setback, make lemonade out of lemons. But tough is tough, and sometimes it takes time to find the inner reserve to bounce back. 

I’m not a fan of the constant demand for quid pro quo, a favor for a favor.  And I think pro bono –doing something for nothing– is compassion at the professional level of our society.  On a personal level, I note that we sometimes experience a deep connection with people when we try a little tenderness.  Compassion is emotional resonance with someone else’s pain mixed together with a desire to do something about it, to make it easier or make things better for someone else.  Many religions consider this a high virtue, some think it is the highest virtue.  So there is lot to say about it.  Suffice it to say that acting selflessly for the benefit of a particular group or community is altruism.  And when you act selflessly for others, you are practicing the golden rule.  

Compassion is not inherently the same as feeling sorry for someone, though surely some think of it that way, and sometimes it’s necessary.  When misery loves company, feeling sorry with help is better than feeling sorry for yourself by yourself. You can also find joy in acting outside of self interest.  Nothing quite so satisfying as successfully giving assistance without wanting anything back. You can rise to the occasion of it by connecting your desire to do good with actually doing good.  But here’s the most amazing thing.  More often than you realize, all you are required to give is the truth that you care. This is no small thing. And some of the time, the most compassionate thing to do is walk away. 

Many people have the mistaken idea that when people talk about trying times, it’s our job to try and fix it.  They believe that compassion is about meddling, taking over, or offering solutions to problems they don’t actually understand.  But compassion is not about interference and problem solving, nor is it about pity.   It’s about wanting to understand the emotional state of another person in order to be helpful. 

With compassion, you can accept people for who they are and on their own terms. You don’t judge them for their difficulties. You understand that this is Earth, and that life is hard on Earth for many people, most of the time.  You know that just waking up and carrying on with the day can require a tremendous amount of courage sometimes.  People can see this in you, because it takes one to know one.  Since you’ve likely lived through troubling circumstances of your own, you know that no matter how well you plan or love, when opportunity is present and reward is the goal, life is risky business.   You know that sooner or later, everyone deals with something they didn’t count on, and it seems impossible to bear. 

People can tell you are compassionate by your sensitivity to loss, to struggle, to uncertainty and doubt. They see your smile turning to concern when you hear of someone’s problem, challenge or struggle.  You soften your eyes, as if turning down the light of your attentiveness will make it easier for them somehow.  

When problems occur, when difficulties emerge, when tragedy happens, instead of trying to fix the people around you or make them feel better, your face, your voice, and your words seem to say “I get it.  It’s hard for you right now.  I’m sorry that it’s hard for you right now.  Hang in there.”   

As a compassionate person, you understand that the expression of feelings is not a request for help.  It represents an opportunity to give people a chance for self-reflection.  Most people find it easier to understand their feelings when they can talk about them out loud in a safe and encouraging environment.  They’re not asking for suggestions.  They don’t want to hear you compare your experience to theirs.  They want you to say, “That’s right.  Tell me all about it.” and “Tell me more,” until there’s no more to be said.   At that point, you can wrap a mental or physical hug around the person and thank them for trusting you enough to share what they care about.

Try this.  Assume that people do what they do for what they consider to be good reasons.  The next time you get upset with someone, have compassion twice.  First, with yourself.  Try to understand the reason for your reaction and how it makes sense to you.  Then, try to put yourself in their place, and to grasp the reason for their behavior that makes sense to them. 

The way to have more compassion in life is to assume the best in others, even when life is dishing out its worst.  Practice this and an amazing thing may happen in return.  Other people may learn to assume the best about you.  When you’re there for people in trying times, they learn that your interest in them is true.  Your concern for them becomes a real willingness to consider your ideas in return.  It’s not that you are more persuasive.  It’s that they are more willing to be persuaded. 

I’m not one who believes in giving in order to get back.  I do believe that cultivating this quality of caring will not only give you more insight into others, but more insight into yourself. 

I ain’t too proud to beg.  Show me some comment love!

be well,


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