In the first scenario, the woman is heckled, literally “booed,” then quickly shuffled off the ice rink after falling backwards on the ice. In the second scenario, a similarly talented young woman starts out strong, then forgets the words. An unrelated gentleman comes to her aid, puts his arm around her, and sings the words with her. As he continues, he looks to the audience, making hand signals to encourage them to join in supporting her during this presumably highly anxious moment.
The second scenario exemplifies all three components of compassion: The gentleman feels the singer’s anxiety, he acknowledges her “suffering,” and he is motivated to help. What I noticed about his assistance is that he is not even a very good singer! But his kind persuasion and ability to motivate the entire crowd in assisting her remarkably transform the outcome for both the singer and the crowd.
Though both scenarios start quite similarly, they end remarkably differently; the second scenario was completely changed by the compassion of a single person and a simple act of human kindness.
Why It Matters, and How to Build It
As depicted in these short videos, compassion can completely change outcomes. You will not find placebo-controlled randomized trials to support what I just stated. But there are plenty of social science studies to support the notion that compassion is a learned trait that can be improved or eroded over time, depending on the willingness of the person to try.
Compassion is a learned behavior. It is not a personality trait that you either have or you don’t. It is a set of behaviors and actions that can be learned and practiced, and even perfected, for those willing.
The Cleveland Clinic has created several videos (see video info box) that help us consider how to think about the nature of compassion and how to learn and practice it. A hospital is ripe with emotion in all areas, from the elevators to the hallways to the cafeteria. Due to the nature of our work, we are all at risk of compassion erosion toward our patients.
We first have to acknowledge such a risk is present and actively seek out opportunities, as depicted in these videos, to learn and practice compassion. As the Dalai Lama once said, “Compassion is a necessity, not a luxury.” We should all learn, demonstrate, and live compassion as a necessity in our practice.
Dr. Scheurer is a hospitalist and chief quality officer at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She is physician editor of The Hospitalist. Email her at [email protected].