As a parent I understand: sometimes I need to be firm to be kind. I have read parenting books that tell me this, other parents share this advice, my parents ….
More importantly, when I draw the line with my little boy, resistance inevitably takes the shape of loud protesting (I believe I have to wait ’till the teen years for choice words to accompany such outbursts…). At this point my best friend, aka. my loving wife, reminds me to be kind, to be gentle, to remain receptive and open to the little bundle of thrashing tantrum… Aaahhh, I hear the refrain: Parenting… the most wonderful gift…
What if being firm and being kind are not opposites? What if, beyond lying on a continuum line, boundaries and compassion are actually intricately, directly linked? When an eagle chick’s feathers are fully developed, it’s mother will gently and firmly nudge it out of the nest, high up in a tree or on a rocky ledge… and the young eagle flies.
In my executive and private coaching programs this particular paradox keeps surfacing. This plays out during coaching programs. It seems to me that compassionate people and clients fall roughly into two groups: 1. those who give themselves to others, often unconditionally, and at times to satisfy their own needs of feeling wanted, and 2. those who know intuitively that they need to take care of themselves first and foremost, in order to be of use and service to others. Examples of the first are typically found in caring professions such as carers and nurses, and the best example I can think of for the second group is that of rescuers, in any area of emergency rescue, but this is also frequently seen in business managers and leaders. And of course, such examples of people can also be found everywhere, in all areas of life.
From a coaching perspective, the first group may benefit from developing their ability to take care of their own needs, indeed from prioritizing being kind to themselves first, and taking particularly physical and emotional care of themselves, before giving to others. They are then less likely to become depleted emotionally and energetically. The second group, again through a coaching lens, may benefit from awareness and consideration of defining their purpose and talents through serving other people, which requires connecting at a human level, beyond job description or functional relationship.
A while ago I read author, Brene Brown (https://realwisdom.com.au/resources/), whose work I respect, put it succinctly: based on her research, she suggests that “some of the most compassionate people are boundaried people”. This invites another question:
What if, to be truly compassionate with people around me, I must be aware of and manage our boundaries with due care? I must clarify and verbalize and check understanding and respect for my boundaries. Now, my boundaries are designed to allow myself to be vulnerable, to act whole-heartedly and to create and feel deep connection, rather than simply protect me. Is this not compassion: to connect deeply, authentically, receptively and with my heart and mind open, with another person? In this connection we can both speak our minds and our hearts, whilst feeling respected, held and heard by the other. Notice that this is very different from sympathy, which tends to be one-directional and dis-empowering “I feel sorry for you”. It feels different, even more than empathy: “I feel your feelings, I understand your thinking, and my boundary is clear – I have my own feelings and my own thoughts also. Now we can dance to explore new insights, new possibilities, a deeper relationship”. Compassion.
Sounds exceptional. What if this was not exceptional, but rather becomes something we can all achieve and practice regularly? For example, a skillful coach can connect with his or her client with deep compassion, holding the conversation with kindness and whole-heartedness, earning trust by allowing the client to feel deeply heard, appreciated and supported, and still (or because of the trust) be able to ask deeply probing, challenging, even uncomfortable questions, which push the boundaries of what is possible for the client. In this way the client feels no unreasonable discomfort in having their boundaries pushed, and can explore and cross their own personal boundaries from a place of feeling supported and held.
How could this look with parenting? How would my little boy feel if I am able to clearly articulate, with integrity and intent, what is considered a boundary of acceptable behaviour between us or in our family, and how his behaviour has crossed this boundary, and what the resulting hurt feels like to me, … while kneeling at his height, looking straight into his eyes with love, and holding his body with gentle kindness, softening as I speak? I know this is not easy. I know I am not perfect, and will make mistakes, every day. But I also know, deep inside me, that this simply feels right, even possible, and definitely worthwhile.
One obvious example in business is that of a feedback conversations, also termed development conversations. Most corporate clients I have coached find this type of conversation difficult, some avoid it, either directly or by having a ‘pleasant’ chat or delivering a quick, harsh reprimand. And yet the combination of setting and discussing clear boundaries and listening to one another to truly understand, appreciate and respect the others heart-felt intent and needs, is incredibly powerful. It leaves BOTH parties feeling worthy, motivated and inspired, to support one another. Impossible? No, I know this can be learned and practiced, because as a coach this is what my clients achieve.
And so, the best news: the ‘boundaried compassionate’ approach to connecting around challenges and opportunities can be learned and practiced. Like with all competencies, it is not enough to understand. Mastery is all about doing, making mistakes, even feeling sorry, but getting back up and trying again, keep practicing. This can also be simulated or practiced, to reduce risk, between two willing and informed learning partners. Or for example, if I can improve my own ‘boundaried compassion’ with my children, the chances of powerful development conversations in my corporate role are much improved. It is not rocket science, but that does not mean it is easy. Why? Because it requires you to do it. Most people stop at reading about it, understanding it….
Ask yourself, right now, how could I have handled a recent, conflicted interaction, by being clear about the boundary(ies), which was crossed, and feeling true compassion for myself (It is okay to make mistakes) and for the other person (it is okay to make mistakes). Now commit to trying this out at least once today, with your child, friend, colleague, partner, stranger… being compassionate through being boundaried
Please share your experience with us. This world around us needs skillful compassion….