Van_Gogh_Self-Portrait_with_Dark_Felt_Hat_1886What is Compassion?


“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

Pema Chödrön 

The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times


Definitions of Compassion

‘Compassion includes ‘empathy, respect, a recognition of the uniqueness of another individual, and the willingness to enter into a relationship in which not only the knowledge but the intuitions, strengths, and emotions of both the patient and the physician can be fully engaged’ (Lowenstein 2008).

A simpler definition is that it is ‘a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it’ (Chochinov 2007).

When the NHS Constitution (Department of Health 2009) discusses compassion, it states: ‘We respond with humanity and kindness to each person’s pain, distress, anxiety or need. We search for the things we can do, however small, to give comfort and relieve suffering. We find time for those we serve and work alongside. We do not wait to be asked, because we care.

‘Compassion – both giving and receiving it – entails an emotional response. It goes beyond acts of basic care and is likely to involve generosity – giving a little more than you have to – kindness, and real dialogue’ (Frank 2004). 

Real dialogue’ is a vital part of compassion and of good care in general. It is more than communication, which is the accurate giving and receiving of a message. It is spoken human to human rather than clinician to patient; it shows interest; never stereotypes but recognises and enjoys difference while also appreciating the common core of humanity; it includes honesty where necessary, and may need courage at times. This form of dialogue is crucial if the patient is to be seen as a whole person and should be engaged in by staff at all points of health care.’ 
From The Point of Care, Enabling compassionate care in acute hospital settings. The Kings Fund April 2009

See our ‘Take Action’ section for resources that can help us understand and develop compassion