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Building Compassion Under Duress


Imagine you’re a neurosurgery resident.  It’s your first time in the operating room with a world renowned surgeon.  You’re sweating profusely, and as it happens a bead of sweat drips down off of your face into the cavity of the man being operated on.  It, of course, contaminates the area.  The surgeon simply needs to irrigate the affected area and all would be okay; instead, he screams at you, tells you never to step into his operating room again, and throws you out.  You sob and wonder if you’ll ever make it as a surgeon.  You never forget the tears you shed and the humiliation you felt.  You realize you cannot trust him.

Now imagine this time you’re the neurosurgeon operating on a child with a brain tumor.  This child, a little boy, hasn’t had his first haircut, lost a tooth, or gone without a blinding headache for as long as he can remember.  You think you can cut out all of the tumor and save him.  Everything is going as expected until the resident nicks a blood vessel.  Blood gushes everywhere.  The boy’s pressure begins dropping rapidly.  Because of all of the blood spurting in his head, you can’t see well enough to clamp the vessel and stop the bleeding.  In last ditch effort you thrust your hands into the cavity and somehow find the vessel and clamp it.  The rest of the operation goes as expected, and the boy survives.  You earn the resident’s unwavering loyalty and respect because you treated him with dignity throughout.

Both the resident in the first scenario and the neurosurgeon in the second are the same person, Dr. James Doty, now a Clinical Professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.  Dr. Doty relates these two different experiences in part to show the difference compassion can make.  He says,

“Remember, when a person — and we know this from the science — when a person sees another person engage in a positive behavior, they’re many, many times more likely to engage in that behavior themselves. When they see another person act with kindness, and with generosity, and with gratitude…”

In all areas of life we’re guilty of reacting too quickly sometimes.  At school we don’t give ourselves or our students a chance to breathe before we react.  We want to teach them a lesson and make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Anger is the first response.  However, anger tends to push students away from us.  It lessens their trust in us.  They become less loyal to us.  It keeps them from taking as many creative risks for fear of the consequences.  This fear increases their stress level.  It can become a vicious cycle.

What are some ways that we can begin to break this cycle and react with thoughtful understanding instead  of knee-jerk anger?  Dr. Doty suggests the following.

  1. Breathe– Take at least six seconds, step back, and reflect. Focus on what you’re feeling and take control of it.  If you need more time, don’t react right away.  Wait until you feel more of a sense of detachment from the situation.  In this way you will have a more thoughtful and reasonable response.
  2. Expand Your Perspective– By stepping back you are better able to look at the situation through the other person’s lenses. This can help you see reasons for their actions that you hadn’t seen before.
  3. Let Go of Anger and Frustration– Letting go of these emotions is not only good for your relationship with the other person, but it’s also good for you. It lowers your blood pressure, and studies show it makes you happier and more satisfied.

Think this sounds too easy on the other person, and too hard on you?  While Dr. Doty has never thrown anyone out of his operating room, he does say,

“It’s not that I let them off the hook, but by choosing a compassionate response when they know they have made a mistake, they are not destroyed, they have learned a lesson, and they want to improve for you because you’ve been kind to them.”


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