Stanford employees learn the answer to the question: What does compassion at work even look like?
On a recent afternoon in September, Dominique Del Chiaro taught a workshop to 74 employees throughout Stanford about the profound impact of using compassion-based skills to enhance their work environment. The topic was timely given the widely reported challenges facing today’s post-pandemic workplace: increased burnout, lack of employee engagement, and higher rates of attrition.
Stanford has long been known for its culture of health and wellness, but Del Chiaro says the events of the past few years have created a surge in demand for tools to address emotional wellbeing–and that includes compassion. Through the course, she gave the participants an opportunity to experience firsthand what research has shown: that the benefits of compassion are undeniable, both personally and professionally.
Del Chiaro is a member of Stanford’s BeWell team of health educators and coaches – a crew that continually seeks new approaches to enhancing the health and well-being of university staff and faculty. Currently training as an Ambassador of Compassion, Del Chiaro believes that a more compassionate workplace can have significant effects not only on the health and well-being of employees but also on their performance.
Del Chiaro’s course for employees is part of her Capstone Project for the Applied Compassion Training (ACT) program offered by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford. Each eleven-month ACT program runs from January to November; the current session includes 92 participants from 18 different countries. During the program, each ACT participant is tasked with designing a project that applies compassion in a setting of their choice; for DelChiaro, that setting was Stanford.
But what does compassion at work even look like? Perhaps the answer isn’t as obvious as people think.
According to Neelama Eyres, a Co-Founder and Director of ACT and one of the program’s lead instructors, a better question to ask oneself is, “What’s the specific problem in the environment that I’m trying to solve and how do I apply compassion as part of the solution?”
Del Chiaro heard the same themes over and over as she designed and then implemented her ACT Capstone Project. Some employees said they struggle with burnout or the stress of having difficult conversations with those reporting to them. For others, it’s the challenge of being micromanaged themselves. One participant described “feeling more like a human service than a human being,” Del Chiaro said.
“Although I had a concept of what compassion was, I had not thought of it as a skill I could use to improve employee morale and strengthen my communication skills,” said one Stanford employee who participated in Del Chiaro’s course. “I plan to incorporate the 4 stages of compassion – noticing, willingness, connection, and action – into our team recognition program.”
Creating a compassionate environment can start with consistent, small actions. “It’s as simple as asking someone, ‘How are you doing?’ when they seem frustrated,” said Del Chiaro, “or acknowledging them for a great idea they came up with.” Perhaps offering extra help to a colleague who is overwhelmed. But the most impactful action is to practice “compassionate listening,” that is, listening to someone intently, without judgement, or not asking any questions besides, “Can you tell me a bit more?” The point is to refrain from offering critique or advice, and allowing the individual the dignity to figure it out on their own. “It shouldn’t be a therapy session,” she said. “Taking the time to listen attentively itself is an act of compassion.”
It doesn’t take much time to have a big impact.“ Just five minutes of compassionate listening and you can walk away feeling like you’ve been heard and seen,” said Eyres. “It’s our premise – and we’ve got empirical data to back this up – that you can help someone take an idea of compassion and turn it into a project that gets delivered in a real-world setting. And you can do this not by critique or a lot of “should-ing” but by the opposite – through compassionate listening and appreciative feedback.”
For some participants in Del Chiaro’s Capstone Project, which took place over two group training sessions, their first response to some of the self-compassion exercises was awkwardness. As high performers, Stanford employees tend to “show up at work ready to power through the day and get things done, and to count on the people working for them to do the same,” she said. Yet through the training, they experienced they can get more done when they start with high-quality listening, self-compassion breaks, and other new skills infused with compassion.
“They learn to navigate hard stuff, like how to have difficult conversations, such as how to help an employee see they may need to make improvements, and at the same time having compassion that constructive feedback can often be painful to hear,” Del Chiaro said. The impact on the manager and employee can be profound. “People come in with a passion to help others, but they don’t come in anticipating their own transformational journey.”
Del Chiaro experienced her own transformative moment when she came to understand the profound importance of practicing self-compassion. For Del Chiaro, this experience caused a remarkable shift. “When I experienced it authentically for myself during an exercise, I realized that people need to acknowledge the challenge in the moment that they’re feeling overwhelmed or burned out, and by practicing self-compassion we can recharge our own batteries and restore balance,” Del Chiaro said. “Only then can we perform at our best, including showing up with compassion, at work. And the best part is we always have access to it.”
By sharing what’s she’s learned in her training to become an Ambassador of Compassion, Del Chiaro is creating a “ripple effect” with her training, inspiring more employees and managers to create meaningful, compassionate workplace cultures. “We want people to enjoy