I have been interested in the role of empathy in communication, particularly conflict communication, for more than a decade. Lately, my interest has broadened to include compassion, which I am beginning to understand as the “action” dimension of empathy. I am drawn to the concept of compassion because it is a foundational concept for theories of human growth and transformation – in psychological, spiritual, and societal realms. At the same time, because I am a communication researcher, teacher, and trainer, my fundamental interest is in the communicative aspect of the concept. That is, if we agree that compassion is an essential part of human life, how do we “do” compassion and how do we recognize when others are “doing” compassion?
Deborah Way and Sarah Tracy recently provided a model for compassion as a communicative act, based on their study of compassionate communication among hospice workers. Their model extends previous research on the subject, conceptualizing compassion as having 3 dimensions:
- Recognizing. Compassion requires that we notice the behaviors and feelings of another. It also requires that we go beyond simply noticing to understanding – understanding the meaning of the behaviors and feelings that we observe. This involves awareness, listening, and observation, of course. It also requires close attention to “communicative cues, timing, and context, as well as the cracks and schisms between various messages” (Way & Tracy, 2012, p. 301). This is a process of active sense-making, which requires close attention to the other and strategic questioning around what people say and what they do not say. Thus, “recognizing” is defined as “understanding and applying meaning to others’ verbal and nonverbal communicative cues, the timing and context of these cues as well as cracks between or absences of messages” (Way & Tracy, 2012, p. 307).
- Relating. Compassion also requires that we move beyond ourselves into the life-world of the other. This can involve affectively feeling for the other, or cognitively connecting with the other, or both. Relating suggests a sense of mutuality and a shared sense of self. Communicative acts that supported relating, in the hospice context, included listening, feeling, identifying, making connections, perspective taking, and building common ground. Thus, “relating” is defined as “identifying with, feeling for, and communicatively connecting with another to enable sharing of emotions, values, and decisions” (Way & Tracy, 2012, p. 307).
- (Re)acting. According to the authors, action is the key to compassion. They conceptualize “action” broadly, however, to include proactively initiating action, reactively responding to the other, and even intentional and strategic inaction. Communicative acts, in the hospice context, that supported this dimension of compassion included being physically present, speaking, reading aloud, advocating, teaching, advising, facilitating, and “giving others the gift of quiet, time, and space” (Way & Tracy, 2012, p. 306). Thus, “(re)acting” is defined as “engaging in behaviors or communicating in ways that are seen, or could be seen, as compassionate by the provider, the recipient, and/or another individual” (Way & Tracy, 2012, p. 307).
Although presenting compassion as a concept with three-parts, Way and Tracy emphasized that the (re)acting dimension is the core component of compassion, and also that which separates it from empathy and sympathy. They emphasized, too, that these three components are not linear. Interestingly, it is possible to create empathic feelings or cognitive connection within oneself by (re)acting in a compassionate way. That is, “action often precedes feeling and thinking” (Way & Tracy, 2012, p. 308). This new conceptualization of compassion invites further research, as well as further thinking about what these concepts mean in interaction.
Way, D., & Tracy, S. J. (2012). Conceptualizing compassion as recognizing, relating and (re)acting: A qualitative study of compassionate communication at hospice. Communication Monographs, 79(3), 292-315.