Can you train people in compassion?

Are you born compassionate, or is it something you can learn and practice? Compassion is one of our values as a Wellbeing Team, and in our Value Based Recruitment we look for people who are compassionate, but should we see it as a skill you can teach instead?

I asked Caroline Bartle from 3 Spirit UK to share her views on this. 3 Spirit UK is a collaborative of social care practitioners and their goal is to improve social care practice. They achieve this goal in different ways but mainly through education. I asked Caroline to share her thoughts on compassion in social care, and what this means as a training provider.

“We work in a tough sector. The work is challenging, low paid and can involve working with fear, pain, loneliness and death. However, it’s also rewarding, extremely interesting and plays an important role in building a strong and resilient society.  Through our work we try to rebalance these factors, enabling people to be equipped with the skills to tackle the challenges, and the confidence to work compassionately and progressively.

There is so much to know in social care, to meet minimum competencies in terms of duty of care. There is so much to teach around policy changes, law and evidence base. There are a multitude of frameworks, policy guidelines and best practice guides, however, how much does this effectively teach us about ‘care’. We mustn’t forget that ‘care’ on whatever level is basically about connections between people. Compassion is a key part of this, but can you teach ‘compassion’? This is the golden question in social care education, one that both myself and my team ponder on regularly. The challenge is that ‘compassion’ is not one single thing, but a multitude of factors. It can be ambiguous and a bit like dignity sometimes it’s hard to describe, but you can always tell when it’s not there.

One of these projects that we worked on recently was to tackle loneliness in care homes. On most of our substantive projects we carry out impact assessments. On this project we had identified that we wanted to see the following impacts:

  • Raised awareness of the dangers of loneliness
  • More detailed recordings showing wellbeing/ illbeing and levels of engagement
  • Adapted the environment to improve engagement and/ or compensate for sensory loss
  • Developed community relationships / resources to support loneliness
  • Introduced a loneliness assessment tool
  • Identified, and encouraged relationships that matter to people
  • Developed own communication techniques to support someone that is lonely
  • Implement a care planning tool to set out ways to minimise loneliness  
  • Introduced technologies to improve communication and engagement

You can see from the impacts above that delivering compassionate care is not there. Compassion is not something that can be easily measured in training, nor in practice and this can be problematic.  However to achieve the stated impacts above we have to capture both the hearts and minds of our students during the time we have them in the training session. We hope that in achieving this compassion might flow from here.  

We therefore adopt the following techniques in our training to achieve this:

  • We set the context at the start of every training, we explain why we need to tackle this and set out why it is important relevant to the learner
  • We teach about the joys and rewards of the work both personally and organisationally
  • We tell stories, powerful ones that individuals can relate and connect to
  • We use ‘experts by experience’ to tell their stories both in the training and through our learning resources
  • We show our learners ‘compassion’, we try to be authentic and acknowledge the resource difficulties that people face.
  • We are passionate in our delivery and really believe in the power of the social model of care

We do need to think about the approach we take to training as it is not a magic bullet. We do need to think about how structure the sessions to capture hearts as well as minds. We also need to identify clearly the impacts that we want to achieve. Whilst we cannot measure compassion the journey between training and impact assessment will help you to identify when it’s not there”

I appreciate Caroline’s honestly about the challenges of thinking about compassion in training.

I invited Andy Bradley who podcasted with me last month, and our first blogger on compassion, Mary Freer to share their perspectives too. They both suggest starting with self-compassion.

Mary said,

“I find the more people are willing to practice self- compassion the more compassionate they become toward others. Everyone can learn to see the world, their community, other individuals and themselves with compassion. That is not to say that everyone will accept this invitation and the accompanying requirements for practice and discipline.

To be compassionate we need to notice the suffering of ourselves and others. This necessitates paying attention. I find more often that the biggest barrier to a compassionate response is a failure to notice. Everyone can learn to pay attention but not everyone will.”

Andy reflected

Can compassion be learned and embodied? The answer to that is it really depends…on certain ’causes and conditions’. In my lived experience most people in the west only really learn about deep compassion through lived experience through their own struggles and adversity. So many people are completing mindfulness programmes and may be able to rest more fully in the present moment as a result but my feeling is that compassion training is something deeper. I know of long term meditators who have found the shift from fight flight to attend and befriend of direct benefit in being more able to turn towards difficulty and respond with kindness

Both Mary and Andy are working to create opportunities around deepening compassion, Andy is developing a one year curriculum with friends and allies from the US, and Mary runs regular compassion labs.

We are half way through our induction with the Wellbeing Support Team, and yesterday were talking about how we live our value of compassion. We created team agreements that include self-compassion, and I look forward to learning with Mary, Andy and Jane Dutton and her colleagues, about what this can mean in practice.