Helping leaders emerge



“We live in a materialistic world that pays insufficient attention to human values. We seek satisfaction in material things instead of warm-heartedness. But human beings are social animals. We need friendship and that depends on trust. Building trust requires concern for others and defending their rights, not doing them harm. Friendship is directly linked to warm-heartedness, which is also good for our physical health”.

                                                                                                        – The Dalai Lama

Idiot Compassion

Idiot compassion
refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion.
In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling.
It’s the general tendency to give people what they want
because you can’t bear to see them suffering.
Basically, you’re not giving them what they need.
You’re trying to get away from your feeling of
I can’t bear to see them suffering.
In other words, you’re doing it for yourself.
You’re not really doing it for them.

Pema Chodron

In my work, I’ve learned that leaders who show up with wise compassion – that is with presence, deep listening skills, and appropriate boundaries – have richer connections and are better able to inspire their teams, manage their schedules, delegate tasks, provide valuable feedback, and mentor their colleagues – which leads to better business results.

What is Wise Compassion?

Wise compassion includes empathy (the ability to listen deeply to, understand, and experience what another person is feeling) plus the desire to help the other person who is suffering. What makes wise compassion a skill is that it requires our willingness and ability to tolerate our own uncomfortable feelings in order to take the action that truly helps the other person while being true to ourselves in terms of values, self-respect, and appropriate boundaries.

What is Idiot Compassion?

Idiot compassion occurs when we convince ourselves that we are helping the other person but what we are really doing is taking or not taking the right action to avoid feeling our own emotional discomfort. This approach can inhibit the other person’s growth and lead to overwhelm or resentment for us.

Examples of how Idiot Compassion Shows Up at Home and Work

  • Offering advice versus being present with and listening to the other person and trusting them to find a solution. This shows up at when we try to “fix” a situation for someone versus trusting in the other person’s potential by being present, asking open ended questions to help them figure out what they want to do, and trust that even if they makes a mistake, they will learn and grow from the situation.
  • Not providing honest, constructive feedback because of fear of hurting the receiver’s feelings. Providing direct, honest, and constructive feedback takes courage and, if delivered with a generosity of spirit, can be life changing (and a relief!) for the receiver.
  • Not delegating because of feelings of guilt or having trust issues. Doing something ourselves that should be delegated because we don’t want to burden others with more work or have issues letting go deprives the other person of an opportunity to grow and learn.
  • Quickly agreeing to take on a project versus taking enough time to understand if your team is sufficiently resourced to deliver. What can make this a challenge is our tendency to people please, our desire to be the hero, having enough patience to understand what the project really entails, and having the courage to say no when the request is not realistic.

Steps for Showing Up with Wise Compassion

  • What does the other person truly need in this situation? For example, they might need for me to listen deeply and be present with them without providing immediate advice. They may need space and time to figure it out on their own, or they may need additional resources and support.
  • As I help this other person, what are my personal boundaries so that I don’t go into hero or rescue mode? And what do I need to in order to feel like I am being valued and respected versus feeling resentful or taken advantage of?
  • What are my watch-outs? How might my fear of being with my own discomfort get in my way of doing the right thing? Or my need to be right, nice, or liked?
  • How can I stay grounded and non-reactive while being with and managing my own emotional discomfort so that I can truly help the other person? Self-management strategies include: I will practice straw breathing (see below, a tool many clients love!) or prepare in advance by writing it out and/or reviewing with a trusted friend or go for a walk.
  • What might I need to let go of in order to truly help this person? For example, my ego, my image, my desire for a quick fix, or my short-term emotional comfort.

Straw Breathing for Self-Regulation
A fight with a partner, a disagreement with a co-worker, someone cutting you off in traffic, or feeling nervous about an upcoming speaking engagement can be a trigger. Straw breathing is a simple tool that can help you down regulate and be in charge of your own physiology. Click here to learn more with Fleet Maull.