Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Bears, Antelopes, Empathy and Compassion

Compassion isn’t the first trait we think about if asked to identify traits lawyers need in order to be successful. Most lawyers would talk about critical thinking skills, willingness to work hard and ability to effectively advocate on behalf of one’s client. Yet many lawyers crave the opportunity to be compassionate and may even need opportunities to show compassion for their own well-being.

Last week, I attended the CBA-Alberta’s presentation of Gray Area Thinking with Ellie Krug. Ellie challenges a lot of our assumptions, and sometimes we need to do this. Ellie is an American lawyer (hence the kooky spelling of “gray”) who trains lawyers and judges in diversity and inclusion. Her program arises, in part, out of her experiences with people who react to the disparity between her appearance (female) and her voice (male). Ellie is a trans lawyer. It was an excellent workshop and, if you get the chance to attend it in the future, it is worth your time.

One concept from the workshop implanted in my brain—lawyers’ desire to show compassion. In an audience poll, Ellie asked how we wanted to be known. We were given a menu of choices, relating to our professional status along with various other ways we define ourselves. I struggled with this poll question because the list included both “family” and “compassion” and I wanted to choose both. I finally clicked on “family,” figuring I would be an outlier as usual for focusing on the personal side of my life. To my surprise, “compassion” was the first choice among the Alberta lawyer participating in the workshop, and she explained that “family” was just an extension of compassion (whew—I did get both!)

According to Ellie, more than half of her lawyer and judge participants consistently choose “compassion” over other attributes. 

I was surprised that wanting to be known for our compassion was widespread in our profession. I have the privilege of holding a role where  compassion plays a key role, but we know that most lawyers’ roles involve suppression of compassion and empathy and focusing on the legal side of individuals’ problems, and that this can erode our well-being. 

So, what is compassion? To understand what compassion is, we need to understand what empathy is, and we must differentiate empathy from sympathy, since sometimes we use these three terms interchangeably. Compassion, which arises from empathy, is related to connecting to people and can build resilience, while sympathy is not. 

Let’s start with sympathy. Sympathy is thinking about what someone else is going through from our own perspective. We know what loss feels like and we feel our own feelings about loss, assuming that the other person feels just as we feel.

Empathy, on the other hand, involves viewing someone else’s pain from their perspective. But empathy is more than taking on another person’s perspective, but it is believed to have four components:
  • Taking on another person’s perspective
  • Being non-judgmental
  • Recognizing what someone else is feeling
  • Communicating your understanding of what they are feeling.
The best explanation of the difference between empathy and sympathy I have found is an animated short film featuring the great Brené Brown. She points out that sympathy often involves judging people and then telling them to “silver lining” their problem.

Just as empathy is a step (or perhaps four steps) beyond sympathy, compassion is a step beyond empathy. 

As lawyers, we are trained to remain objective. We know that if we lose objectivity and begin to take on our client’s issues personally, it can be a boundary violation as well as a potential ethics breach, and we increase our risk of burning out. We tend to box up our empathy and compassion so that we remain objective.

I tried practicing family law originally, but my empathy was in hyperdrive and there were no resources back then to support lawyers dealing with difficult emotions (my career predates Assist by about ten years.) Then I practiced corporate law, where empathy was irrelevant because it was all about the numbers and the documents. But then I found what was just right for me, corporate human resources law. I could empathize with the employee in a difficult situation—and sometimes I shifted managers or HR towards a more compassionate result, not what lawyers are generally known for. 

Finding a way to employ empathy and compassion in most law jobs, however, is tricky. We often find that we have to get our fill of empathy and compassion in our personal lives. 

I had a situation this week while I was pondering empathy, sympathy, and compassion. One of my neighbours told me that his son had passed away, a healthy adult who was admitted to hospital, diagnosed with an invasive cancer, moved to palliative care, and passed away, all within two and a half weeks.

In Brené Brown’s video, the bear embodies an empathetic response while the antelope shows the downsides of superficial sympathy. I wanted to be the bear and not the antelope. If we are being honest with ourselves, many of us are prone to acting like the antelope if we are not being conscious about our reactions. 

As lawyers, we are used to planning our response while the other person is speaking, so I turned off my lawyer brain and just listened to my neighbour. I saw the pain in his face and that his eyes were tearing up. I tried not to pepper him with questions but just let him tell his story. I acknowledged his pain (empathy) and I asked if there was anything I could do to help (compassion).

But I struggled with my desire to say something like “at least you were able to go out to visit your son before he passed. That must give you some comfort.”  This is what Brené Brown calls “silver lining.”

I also had to avoid playing the one-upmanship game common in our profession: "Two and a half weeks, you say, and the hospital allowed all of his friends to visit? My dad has been in the hospital for five months now and we have often been restricted to one or two visitors from an approved list.” This wasn’t about me and playing the “I can trump your experience with my own” was not appropriate (to be honest, it never is appropriate, but I am working on this.)

Brené Brown says “what makes things better is connection.” My talk with my neighbour, where I consciously focused on him and his experience, was better because I restrained my desire to control the conversation and just focused on connecting to his need. There is nothing I can say or do that will make his pain less, but I listened, and I expressed quiet support.

I tend to see compassion as taking a step in furtherance of empathy, so I immediately thought I would bake something to take over—something tangible, to show that I care, but the real step in furtherance of empathy was the act of listening and asking how I could help.

If you are a lawyer who wants to be known for compassion, know that there is a place for you in our profession, and you are not wrong for wanting—or needing—to exercise empathy and compassion. If remaining objective for your clients holds you back from engaging in empathy and compassion, then please remember that you can apply your empathy and compassion as a volunteer. Assist will be offering peer support training in the fall. Please consider if you have a desire to show compassion and empathy to your fellow-lawyers—we need you. And you never know when a neighbour, a friend, or a casual acquaintance will reach out to you. 

Be the bear.