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Connection Compassion and Agility

Connection, Compassion, and Agility: What Do These Look Like in Practice?

  • 05 June 2020
  • Leadership Culture

A discussion of personal stories about making progress and allowing mistakes, from life and from business, when befriending uncertainty is the only route ahead.

Dr Barbara is a medical doctor, with a background in psychiatry and public health, an author, public speaker and event leader. She now works with organizations to bring the “how to do it” of wellbeing into the workplace. As a thought leader in her field, her engaging, inspiring and science-based events delve into making the most of our most precious shared resource, human energy. As well as her book, “The Mindfulness Playbook”, she co-authored “Leading with Presence,” and “The Kindness Habit - transforming our relationship to addictive behaviors.”

Jonan is London-born, Ipswich-raised, and with love for Uganda, the home of his father's side of the family. He joined Kin + Carta earlier this year as Director of Investor Services. Previously, Jonan worked at Deliveroo, Sun Capital, Bain & Company and at the Bank of England. He has an Mphil in Economics. Outside of work, he is the founder of a social enterprise, Mama Kari, offering down to earth leadership in workplace mental health.


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Jonan Boto, Director Due Diligence and Team Culture, Kin + Carta Advise Europe and Founder at Mami Kari
Dr. Barbara Mariposa, Managing Director & Author, Creating Health Ltd



Dr. B:

Dr. B is my stage name as it were, I'm basically a medical doctor in my background, I worked in psychiatry, which is when we take care of people who have become very unwell in a way that we currently call mental and also in public health, and that latter hat has come much more to the fore recently because of the pandemic and the understandings of why different areas or different slices of society are being differentially impacted by the Coronavirus. I also performed at Glastonbury three years in a row, in the calvary tent.


Over the past two weeks, we've had one on one interviews with Dr. B, who you're listening to now. With Joe Roth, who is a friend of mine from back in the day playing rugby. He is very high level World Cup winner, and has had his own journey after rugby. Also, with Adrian Axtell, who is a national officer in the Union community. And he gave some really good insights about people going through job changes, job losses and what it's taken for him to survive in that vocation. 

I'm going to say one brief thing on myself. I care a lot about mental health of our teams, but very clear that there's no obvious silver bullet in these things apart from the meditation as one foundation we should all be doing if we can. The second thing I'd say is, when we talk about compassion, connection and agility, my descent is British mum and Ugandan dad. And the only reason I say that is because we spent a lot of time in Uganda. And all of these concepts are just so global, and so local at the same time. So, you talk to someone in a village in Uganda, and they're looking for the same thing that we are looking for on this call with Dr. B. Some peace, some understanding, some purpose, a job. So all I take from that is humans are quite simple in the end, but it still feels difficult.

Words create worlds



Dr. B, one quote we got from your interview was "Words create worlds." Can you expand on that a bit?

Dr. B:

Right. Oh, you picked one of the difficult ones to expand that, to context actually. I mean, the way I think like that is like, you're almost in the opposite sense. If there's this quite new concept called epistemic injustice, which is really about the belief systems that create our systems of knowledge and how we understand the world. And one of the vehicles for how we understand the world is our language. And if we take a word like for example, gaslighting. Gaslighting has now become part of the vernacular, most people kind of go, "Oh, what is that actually? "Oh, yeah, I know, I've heard that, what is that?" Or some people have a very clear understanding of what it was or is. And yet, if I look back at my own life, and this is quite personal now, I had a very dodgy marriage with a lot of psychological abuse and also physical abuse actually. And what I was experiencing, I didn't have a word for, and I now recognize was actually coercive control and gaslighting. And reflecting a way of communicating that to the world, there wasn't an epistemic system to underpin my experience of how I would interpret that to the world at large. So I tended to undermine my own experience with that which is part of the gaslighting thing anyway. But now I have a concept, and people, I can explain that concept to people who come see me one to one or in a workshop and they go, "Oh, that's what it is". Somehow there's this background feeling of our experiencing what we're experiencing in the world. But unless we can label it, we don't show that it actually exists, and we tend to dismiss it and undervalue it and it's like what's wrong with me that I'm feeling like this? It's like, no, that's gaslighting.

It works in the other way around as well for words like hysteria, for example. Hysteria was a term that was coined by men, white men in Europe to explain the irrational behavior of women. And based on the fact that women have a uterus, which men don't, the womb is hystorous in Latin, the uterus. And so the obvious solution was to remove people's uteruses because that was the source of hysteria. And this is like this way in which that ‘hysterical, you’re so hysterical’, is like quite a pejorative label that has a gendered reality in the world. I very rarely hear about men behaving hysterically. And so there's the way in which our reality and our perception of reality is shaped by the words that we use, and understanding the epistemic roots of it, is like, hm, is that a word that's actually useful in terms of what is really going on?


And you can then decide in some way it helps you get more control of the whole feeling. Knowing whether you want to use the word or being able to name the word.

Dr. B:

Also being able to question the use of the word. Why we use that word, what comes with that word. Every word has some baggage, how do we unpack that baggage that in terms of the construct of the meanings that get associated with the use of that word.


The difference between compassion and empathy


Dr. B:

It’s interesting if we look at people being empathic and people exercising compassion, the first thing to notice is the different areas of the brain light up in relation to that. So we're distinguishing two different psychological functions. Empathy is a word that got invented at the beginning of the 20th century in the German world, which means literally ‘to feel with’. And there is lots of structures in the brain which are designed to allow us to feel with somebody when they're feeling something on an emotional level. So, if somebody's hurt their finger, not only do the pain centers light up in their brain, but they also light up in our brains thanks to something called mirror neurons. So we can't help but experience that. Chalk on the blackboard kind of thing. The thing about empathy is that you can have it trained out of you, it's like that sort of like ‘I don't want to feel what you're feeling’. But the distinction for me, going back to my professional roots, is if you’re empathic, there's a tendency to soak up what other people's feelings are, and then go is that me or is that you? Am I feeling nervous or are you feeling nervous? And that's nice because if you can distinguish that and say, oh, okay, that's your anxiety. But if we're continuously being exposed to, as we are at the moment, extraordinary levels of grief, rage, upset on so many levels, it can become incredibly exhausting. And a lot of the people I'm talking to in businesses at the moment, they just go, I just don't understand why I feel so tired. But it's that constant exposure to suffering, that we don't know how to deal with on a personal level, because we don't have any training of how to relate to our minds basically, so that's empathy. 

On the other hand, compassion requires us to make a conscious choice, if you like, about how we want to be in the world. So compassion is a desire, or an intention rather, to want to minimize suffering in the world. And that is therefore a function of what we call the prefrontal cortex, which is the executive control bit which allows us to go, who do I choose to be right now? So empathy is not necessarily a choice, but compassion is ‘I choose that’. And the interesting thing that distinguishes it for me, and I had to learn this as a doctrine during the meditation practice, is that compassion is extended to all living beings. You can't leave anybody out of compassion. You can leave people out from empathy if you don't like them, or you can't relate to them. It's like, well, that's your problem kind of thing. Or they're in a group that you don't belong to, so you don't get as much empathy for them. Whereas compassion is something that you want to be it's a being, it's a way of being, which then informs how you relate to other people. And the second thing that's really interesting about it is that exercising compassion actually has benefits for the person who is compassionate.


Okay. I love that because, first off, in this space, when you're wondering myself, how can I feel that? You almost want a few rocks to stand on and compassion feels like a rock to stand on.

Dr. B:

It’s more than a rock. The basis of the loving, kindness, meditation, is may you be well, may you be happy, may you be at peace. And if you just say those words to yourself and people have done extensive trainings with professional groups who are constantly subjected to a lot of trauma like firefighters, police, frontline doctors, and there's something that happens in the developmental processes in the brain when we exercise these things that build the areas of the brain literally like a muscle that allow us to feel compassion that has a protective effect on my wellbeing, so doing good, does you good. And I just love the fact that all those ancient wisdom traditions can now be vindicated in a way through neuroscience.


I've got you. I love that as well. So for everybody listening, don't feel pressured to practice meditation, but know that compassion is there for you. And the one thing I will ask is compassion or say that meditation, it can help you build yourself up. 


Leadership in times of uncertainty



One of the questions we had was ‘what have you seen a leader do to help others cope with uncertainty?’. I want to tell you Joe Roff’s answer. He talked about the power of a simple observation that a leader can give. So during a rugby game against New Zealand, the best team in the world, and Jonah Lomu, who was the biggest player of the time, they were 20-nil down eight minutes in. He said, the team all went round, under the posts, waiting to get back in the game and a very humble captain of theirs just said, "Don't shout, don't anything. Just remember, we haven't had the ball yet. And when we get the ball, we've got a chance to get back in the game." And that doesn't sound too profound. But Joe said that it was so simple and so obviously true, it reassured people.

Dr. B:

Yeah, and it’s the simple things, it's not complicated and that's why I think people get confused. The simple things, as you said about your story about Uganda, there are certain characteristics of being human that just carries through: like kindness, like generosity, like presence. For me what you're saying there is about presence, just let yourself drop into the present moment. Be with yourself in a way that allows you to rest.

It’s interesting, you know, that all meditation practices there’s nothing fancy about it, we are in the body. It's a bodily thing. The mind is secondary to the body and that's where again, our understanding of the world the epistemology that we live in is very head led. The head leads the body. Actually, it's the other way around, it’s the physiological changes in the body that alter your state of mind, but we're not trained or given any education about how to have a relationship with our mind, let alone how to create a state of mind which allows us to feel compassion for ourselves.


Is there anything you've seen from leaders in your experience?

Dr. B:

It's difficult, isn't it? Because I work in a lot of big companies where I don't actually see the leaders, I feel the impact of the leaders if you will. But I think that that is very much of the time that we're also challenging what the concept of leadership is. And I draw a distinction between that there's a positional leadership, and people who show up in the moment to lead the way, as that guy that you just told the story about. Which I've seen plenty of examples where somebody shows up and goes in all the chaos and confusion, how can we envision a way forward? How could we tilt the system with a sense of hope about the future. And I think that the kind of conversations that we're engaging in currently in this crisis, the global crisis, requires that kind of leadership, which is allowing things to emerge rather than providing answers.


Brutal truths




I talked about that simple truth: being a really good anchor, compassion clearly being more than a rock. We also had this question in about facing the brutal truth. So I actually want to ask you quite personally, which brutal truths are you looking in the face of right now?


Dr. B:

I mean, that word brutal is brutal, isn't it? I mean, to be honest, on a lesser level my own mortality because I'm 68 and I might cop it, because of the Coronavirus. But more fundamentally, racism. Two of my children, their father was from Senegal. They are mixed race, they identify as black. And all of their lives, I've been aware that they are going to face problems because of the color of their skin, but it's early over the course of the growing up with them and being educated by them about their experiences of what it's like that I've realized how privileged I am, that I can walk out the door and go to the local Tesco's and nobody’s going to bat an eyelid. If they go with me, I realized that all my life I've been kind of shielding them, ‘it's okay, they're with me’. Why do I have to do that? What is that like? For their lived experience in their own skins of knowing that people are looking at them in a particular way because of what they look like. And the impact of that is just horrific and we're just seeing it exploding. The centuries of pain and suffering and degradation and oppression, that are racism. And racism is the parent of race, not the other way around. I live with that through my children, and they are educating me about what this is about. My daughter has actually started, I've got this thing here, my daughter has actually started posting about her own experiences recently. This is her Instagram post, she's putting up little YouTube things, really doing her stuff to explain to white people what it's like.



Interesting. Well, okay, the one thing I'm going to put back at you here is, is that too much empathy that you are holding onto? I don't feel like any of us should feel guilty. You going to Tesco's, you shouldn't feel guilt. I really don't believe that.


You're going to be part of the great solution. I'll just give you the half thing which actually is missing, say in America is they don't have the institutions to fix stuff at a state level. It's just very sad where they're going. But, are you in danger of feeling too much empathy and guilt?


Dr. B:

And that's the crazy thing. And one of the little posts that my daughter would talk about, let's pull that up again, because I'm so proud of her, it's actually, hey, this is not about guilt. This is not about shame. She's her mother's child, isn't she? She says, "This is compassion, we're working on this together." And what that whole thing is like, it's not my job to educate you, you need to do the work. She's saying, I want to help you do the work because that's going to make it work for everybody. And so there is no place for guilt here. I am also a product of generations of colonialism and everything, so we're not pointing a finger here at anybody.

Journeying into meditation



So we have a question from Archie: are apps such as Headspace and Waking Up the best source or introduction for someone who wants to begin meditating?

Dr. B:

That's a good question I get asked a lot. I think people vary enormously in what suits them. So I would say just try what works for you. I think fundamentally I want to deconstruct that misconception that this is a ‘thing’ that you do. You know, yes, you can practice by sitting quietly with yourself and just noticing your breathing, and noticing where your mind wanders to you and bringing your attention back to your breathing. That's pretty much all it is. But fundamentally, it's about that sense of self awareness, of just noticing what's happening with you right now and allowing a sense of curiosity and kindness to explore what that experience is. That is basically what the ancient wisdom practices are talking about, and we can practice that by sitting quietly by ourselves, listening to a Headspace app if you want to if that helps you. But none of that is necessary if you find your own way.


Great point and I'd even add into that, Archie and others who are thinking about this, when you do counseling, you might end up going to eight different therapists in a year. You don't connect with the first one. Then you go into the second one and you're excited about and you don't connect again. Again and again. Now, Archie, that's not something to make you feel like disappointed. That's just to say, like with Headspace, and other such things, I actually connect well with Headspace. Like Andy, who speaks on Headspace annoyed me for a bit, I then got into him. And it might not work for other people, but you do need to find the time and intention to practice and find if it'll work.

Dr. B:

Yeah, you do. It's like brushing your teeth. It's like you just need to brush your teeth. It's just like give yourself five minutes every day to just sit quietly by yourself.


Noah has asked a question related and I think that actually Dr. B, say you've got experience in meditation you know what it feels like, but when you don't have any, where's the best place to start? I'm actually going to put it out there and say Headspace. Noah, try it.

Dr. B:

Yeah, or Calm, Calm is another good one. I mean it's interesting, isn't it? Because the whole basis of meditation is actually about community and connectedness with other people. The best place to do it is actually in the company of other people who are doing it too. And that's how I started, somebody invited me along to a Sangha, and I sat on my bum completely still for 45 minutes. It's just how I started and that's the way I did it and nobody said this is really hard, this is too long. You just kind of did it.


Mental health in the workplace


Mel (audience question):

Hi Dr. B, hi Jonan. So I know you already touched on what leaders have done to help deal with uncertainty. But my question is, what do you think companies can do during COVID and even post COVID to ensure that employees are mentally healthy? Because a lot of the time if you're physically ill, you can take time off and your employees care and notice and make sure you're better but what do you think they can do when it comes to your mental health?

Dr. B:

This comes back to kindness really and compassionate. And, you know, for me, I've been doing a lot of webinars recently about mental health and how do we support people coping in the workplace and really encouraging managers and senior leaders to actually put mental health center stage, and then equip people with these skills of being present in the moment, neutralizing the pressures and really having a sense of flexibility and adaptability and asking people how they are.


Mel, we're gonna have to work on it, I think, because I don't think any company in the world does this well, does it perfectly. We're so early in that. So, we need to take our time and put effort and energy and ideas into it. In 10 years, we'll have a better answer, basically, that has to be that.


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