Law Ruler April 2024
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5 Ways to Cultivate Compassion

By Jamie Spannhake

Developing a sense of compassion — or at least neutrality — can make relationships better. It can also improve outcomes and our own experience of work and life.

cultivate compassion

I’m reading “The Person You Mean to Be” by Dolly Chugh. The subtitle is “How Good People Fight Bias,” but I’m finding it to be about much more than fighting bias. The book has reminded me that while we see ourselves as “acting in a moment,” we tend to see others’ actions as indicative of their nature. 

As my daughter’s school psychologist said in a “Life Worth Living” lesson to her class:

We judge ourselves by our intention; we judge others by their behavior.

Here’s an example of how that might play out.

If I’m driving fast on the interstate and weaving in and out of traffic, I will not judge myself harshly if my intention is to get my sick daughter to the emergency room. My intention is good so my erratic driving is just a momentary action not related to my nature as a person. But if someone else is driving this way, and cuts me off, I might assume they just aren’t a good person, that they don’t make good decisions and they always drive this way.

In other words, we judge our own actions less harshly than we judge others.

Compassion Can Increase Civility Among Lawyers

As a former litigator, I have experienced this double standard, both as the judger and the judged. I often thought how much more civil our law practice could be if we approached everyone else with the same level of “grace” we give ourselves.

Of course, I recognize that not everyone is honest and there are bad actors. And I’ve been opposing counsel to several lawyers who were dishonest and, arguably, unethical. In those situations, it was crucial to act accordingly to protect my clients’ interests (and my own sanity).

But what about when we are dealing with the majority of opposing counsel, or opposing parties, or even our colleagues and subordinates?

Compassion Improves Relationships and Outcomes

In these situations, developing a sense of compassion — or at least neutrality — can make our relationships better. It can also improve outcomes and our own experience of work and life.

(Still not convinced cultivating compassion is important to your career? Check out this post.)

How Do We Develop Compassion?

Here are five ways to cultivate compassion.

1. Cultivate Objectivity

According to scientific research, compassion has five aspects: generosity, hospitality, objectivity, sensitivity and tolerance. A good place to start when thinking about cultivating compassion at work, and especially in a legal career, is with objectivity. This can sometimes be challenging as we often spend time advocating from a one-sided perspective. But it is beneficial in our work to see things from many perspectives as this improves our ability to advocate. This is true in life as well. One of the best ways to cultivate objectivity is to “zoom out” and look at the big picture.

2. Move Past Self-Referencing

Self-referencing is the process of linking information to ourselves. In other words, it’s focusing on how something will affect us, often to the detriment of how it affects others. It’s natural to first consider how things will affect us personally, but don’t stop there. You can do this by considering how things will affect others, and also by expanding your awareness to include how the effects on yourself and others are interconnected.

3. Stop Judging

We automatically judge. We are constantly assessing whether things are good or bad, right or wrong. This can be especially true in the practice of law, where we are tasked daily with assessing issues to determine if there are problems and then how to resolve them (or better yet, avoid them). But when it comes to other people, especially people “on our side,” like colleagues, friends and family, letting go of that judgment is critical to compassion. Remember, too, that relaxing judgment often starts with ourselves. In other words, the people most judgmental of others are typically hypercritical of themselves.

4. Practice Self-Compassion, Then Expand Outward (or Vice Versa)

Some people can treat themselves compassionately but find it hard to be compassionate with others. Some people are more forgiving and understanding with others, but very hard on themselves. Wherever you fit on the spectrum from outward compassion to self-compassion, start with the one that comes most easily to you and then expand.

So, for example, if you find it easy to not judge yourself when you arrive late to a meeting for, of course, a personally justifiable reason, turn that same compassion toward a colleague next time they are late. On the other hand, if you beat yourself up any time you skip the gym or eat a cookie, start by translating your inner monologue into something similar to what you’d say to a friend if they didn’t meet their health goals for the day.

5. Lead With Calm Curiosity

When we approach people and situations with calm curiosity, we find there’s more to the story than we thought. Rather than assuming the reason someone has taken a particular action, ask why. Don’t presume a negative or disrespectful intent. Instead, ask. Then actively listen to what people have to say in response. Many times, we have no idea what people are experiencing, or even what happened the moment before we ran into them. Even if we cannot immediately react compassionately or view their actions objectively, we can calmly ask for more information so we can assess what is really going on.

By cultivating compassion, we can improve our career, relationships and life. Give it a try!

Photo by Ester Marie Doysabas on Unsplash

Have You Read Jamie Spannhake’s Bestselling Book?

The Lawyer, the Lion, and the Laundry Book CoverFind Your Calm in the Chaos

In “The Lawyer, the Lion, and the Laundry: Three Hours to Finding Your Calm in the Chaos,” lawyer and certified health coach Jamie Spannhake helps you learn how to CHOOSE, ACT and THINK in ways that will clarify your desires and set priorities so you can reclaim your time and enjoy your life.

Available in the Attorney at Work bookstore, here. 

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Jamie Spannhake Jamie Spannhake

Jamie Jackson Spannhake is a writer, coach for lawyers, and speaker. She helps busy lawyers create lives they truly want, lives with time and space to do all the things she was told she couldn’t do as a successful lawyer. Her work with clients is based upon the principles in her book, “The Lawyer, the Lion, & the Laundry.” She spent nearly 20 years practicing law in New York and Connecticut, in BigLaw, as a solo, and as a partner in a small firm. Learn more about her at, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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