Why Compassion Comes Second

To say things are divisive right now would be an understatement. 

After months of enduring a global pandemic, the past few weeks have been focused on racial inequities and injustice—and rightly so. 

Both issues deserve our attention. And at their core, a virus and racism are not political. They are both harmful to humanity and—left unchecked—kill people prematurely. 

But what really divides us is peoples’ reactions to these issues. 

The result is a constant stream of disagreements and arguments unfolding in real time. We have these actual, unequivocal threats to our communities compounded by divisiveness and fighting. 

So naturally, many people will call for greater compassion. And I agree that compassion is absolutely critical—especially right now. 

But we don’t start there. 

COMPASSION COMES SECOND

Last summer my Enneagram teacher, Russ Hudson, said “you don’t start with trying to be compassionate. Compassion comes naturally with understanding.” 

I learned many valuable things over my 5-day training at the Enneagram Institute, but that point stuck out the most for me. And I’ve carried it with me ever since. 

Over the past three months, I’ve been faced with many opinions that run contrary to my own. I would find myself asking, “why can’t they just understand!?”  In other words, wishing others would understand me instead of the other way around. 

Upon noticing this reaction of mine, I could check myself and instead ask, “what do I need to understand about them?” By being more open to considering why a person would feel a given way, I could start to understand their reaction. 

And with understanding came real compassion. 

UNDERSTANDING DOES NOT EQUAL AGREEMENT

Here’s the thing about trying to truly understand another person’s position: it requires vulnerability. 

It means being open and considering multiple perspectives. And, it means you may stumble upon evidence that weakens your own opinion. 

But a willingness to understand another person also challenges you to think critically. To test your own beliefs. 

I can’t count how many times I’ve been pushed over the past few months to clarify where I stand on important issues. It has been uncomfortable and often left me feeling exposed and uncertain. But I would persist and ask more questions until I gained my own clarity.

And, I was willing to be vulnerable because I knew that understanding another person’s position does not mean I agree with them. 

Sadly, it seems many people stay closed off to understanding others as a defence mechanism to protect their own beliefs. 

A SHORTCUT TO UNDERSTANDING

Here’s the thing. There is an undercurrent throughout all the work I do helping people understand why they get stuck. Whether we’re talking about the psychological immune system protecting us from harm or the ego structure that reinforces our personality, there is a common thread. 

It’s fear. 

Fear drives so much of our behaviour, whether conscious or subconscious. 

So a shortcut you can use when trying to understand another person is asking, “what fear might be driving this belief?” Even if you don’t share that fear, you might be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understand their reaction. 

Let me be clear, understanding why someone acts a certain way does not excuse bad behaviour. 

But it does lead to more compassion. 

And the world definitely needs more of it right now.