There is much talk now of the importance of compassion. Miller and Rollnick have introduced it as a key element of the spirit of motivational interviewing in the latest edition of their bestselling book. They mean by it ‘a deliberate commitment to pursue the welfare and best interests of the other.’ And say that ‘to work with a spirit of compassion is to have your heart in the right place so that the trust you engender will be deserved,’ Described like this it fits well with motivational interviewing and explains why we teach MI to some people e.g. nurses and not to others e.g. double glazing salesmen; their agendas are, we expect, different.

The Cambridge English dictionary says compassion is; ‘a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them’. This feels slightly less compatible with MI. The detachment and objectivity of the counselling relationship may be compromised by sympathy if we are not careful and Bill Miller has long ago alerted us to the need to keep our ‘righting reflex’ (the urge to fix things) under control while maintaining empathy.

In the nursing context compassion is expressed as an intention to act upon the suffering of others; an action-focussed development of the Dalai Lama’s description of it as the ‘wish to see others free from suffering’. As a nurse myself I can appreciate the wish to assess compassion by what people DO to their patients rather than how they feel about them! But doing things for people is not always the best way to help them or free them. I recall this from my first ward placement as a student nurse; stroke rehabilitation. Oh the temptation to dress people rather than wait and encourage while they struggled to dress themselves!

As trainers and teachers we wonder;

  • Can you teach compassion or are you born with or without it?
  • Can you measure compassion or only measure whether people behave as if they feel compassion? Does it matter as long as you are doing the right thing?

As we meditate on these ideas we might offer up our thoughts to Kwan Yin the goddess of compassion and mercy. Her name means literally ‘She who hears the cries of the people’

Reference; Dietze E and Orb A (2000) Compassionate care; a moral dimension of nursing.’ Nursing Inquiry Vol 7 P166-174