Can Compassion be Learned?

I spend a fair bit of my time working with managers  and leaders in the NHS and the challenge of delivering compassionate and efficient healthcare is never far from the table. A lot of time and energy can be spent discussing whether compassion can be taught or whether it is an inherent attribute that has to be recruited for and then nurtured.  I am not sure that such discussions are necessarily helpful and prefer to take a very pragmatic and simple approach to working with managers who wish to develop more compassionate care.

The starting point for me is to simplify the debate on what we mean by ‘compassion’ in order to allow practical action to be taken.  In my pragmatic world ‘compassionate’ is just a label that we attach to some episodes of care and not to others.  Indeed some care we might label ‘hard hearted’, ‘mean’ or ‘uncaring’ .  In this pragmatic world these are not innate human qualities but labels that we apply to episodes of care  because of certain characteristics of that caring episode that we notice and use to form a judgement leading to the label.

If we can isolate these characteristics or behaviours then we can use the standard managerial tools of feedback and praise to make sure we get more of the compassionate behaviours that we want and fewer of the hard hearted, uncaring and mean behaviours that we don’t.

Am I enabling managers to teach compassion with this approach? Or am I simply teaching them to use good management practice to get the kind of care delivered that they want?

Well to be honest I am not sure that I am too worried about that debate.  And I am not sure that patients are that worried either.

My next one day workshop on Compassionate Management in the NHS takes place at Salford University School of Nursing and Midwifery on 18th October 2013.


NB Although this post talks about developing compassion in care settings the same approach works for any quality that you are trying to develop in any workplace.  So whether you are looking for  ‘professionalism’, ‘precision’, ‘effective cross selling’, ‘creativity’ or ‘innovation’ the same process of going from labels to the behaviours that drive those labels and then the effective use of feedback to encourage the right behaviours will work for you.

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