Compassion, with Thom Bond

April 29, 2020 Kim Forrester Season 6 Episode 2
Compassion, with Thom Bond
Compassion, with Thom Bond
Apr 29, 2020 Season 6 Episode 2
Kim Forrester

Thom Bond is a thought leader, author, activist and founder of the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication. He is the creator and leader of The Compassion Course, which attracts thousands of participants from around the world. On this episode, Kim Forrester and Thom explore how applied compassion can help us create a more peaceful and sustainable existence, on both a personal and social level. 

Show Notes Transcript

Thom Bond is a thought leader, author, activist and founder of the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication. He is the creator and leader of The Compassion Course, which attracts thousands of participants from around the world. On this episode, Kim Forrester and Thom explore how applied compassion can help us create a more peaceful and sustainable existence, on both a personal and social level. 

Kim Forrester:   0:00
According to researchers, when we engage in acts of loving kindness, we not only feel good, we also boost our health and emotional well-being in several profound ways. You're listening to the Eudaemonia podcast. I'm Kim Forrester and, today, we're going to explore the power of compassion.

Intro:   0:22
Welcome to Eudaemonia, the podcast that is all about flourishing. Plug in, relax and get ready for the goodness as we explore the traits and practices that can help you thrive in life ... with your host, Kim Forrester.  

Kim Forrester:   0:42
Thom Bond is a thought leader, author, activist and founder of the New York Center for Non-Violent Communication. He's best known as the creator and leader of The Compassion Course, and author of The Compassion Book: Lessons from the Compassion Course. Thom has created an innovative global approach to peacemaking and mediation, and his teachings have reached tens of thousands of people around the world, in several languages. It's a pleasure to be chatting with Thom today to learn how compassion can help us create a more peaceful and sustainable existence on both a personal and social level. Thom Bond, it's such a delight to have you here on the Eudaemonia podcast. How are things with you today?

Thom Bond:   1:25
Thanks, very well. Very well, thank you.

Kim Forrester:   1:28
Let's get straight into it. You open your book, Thom, by talking about needs. And I must say, I was about three paragraphs in when I had, sort of, this lightbulb moment. Why are needs such an important concept to understand when we're talking about compassion?

Thom Bond:   1:43
First of all, thank you for asking that question. It is kind of ... well, let's just look at it this way. What do we call somebody without needs?  

Kim Forrester:   1:53
Not alive.  

Thom Bond:   1:54
Exactly. We call them a cadaver. We call them dead, we call them passed. And so, you know, I was a philosophy major in university. And, so one of the things we do is we take away something to see what's there, in the first place, by comparison. And when we take away needs, what do we have? We have no life. And so, when we say a person without needs is dead, what does that make needs? It literally makes needs 'life'. It's how we humans wrap our head around this experience that, by the way, every one of us is going through. And so that's why it's so important. It's a place, no matter who you're facing, who you're talking to, we know - we know - that they are just like we are, in that they have needs just like I do. And that very thought - I mean just trying that thought on - changes how we are going to relate to that person. It's going to change how we relate to everybody.

Kim Forrester:   3:01
You go a step further, though, just in that opening of your book, because you explain how understanding that everything we do, every behaviour that we have, every choice we make and action that we undertake, basically is driven by a need. And I found that to just be so illuminating in terms of where we can start with our own compassion. Can you explain then how our understanding that we are needs-driven beings can help us, sort of, connect into compassion? 

Thom Bond:   3:35
Yes, I would like to say this about that. You know, like I said, I was a philosophy major, and I spent a lot of money and a lot of time to find out that I don't actually know what the truth is. And so, I'm not going to say that it's the truth that every single thing we do, we do to meet a need. However, like I said, I don't even know what's true. So what I do know is that, when I think this way - in other words, it's a perspective, it's a way to think. It's not about the truth. It's about how I can look at myself and how I can look at the world. That's what changes everything.

Kim Forrester:   4:13
So what is the change that we can take in terms of understanding other people's needs that can help us activate and enable our own compassion?

Thom Bond:   4:23
Yeah, well, let's just maybe talk about compassion for a second. It's often considered pity. It's also considered co-feeling or sympathy. And during my years here studying, really, 'what is compassion?', it's an experience. And, yes, we have this thing we call compassionate action. But you could do compassionate action against your will, in a way. And so, the idea for me -  what I really want to have - is what I call organic or natural compassion. Not the one we're 'supposed to' have, but the one that just shows up in us as human beings. And how does that happen? Well, what I found out, and what my teacher Marshall Rosenberg taught me, was that when I become acutely aware of my own and other people's needs that I start ... it just changes my relationship with them. And I start to care about them. And that's really, I think, what compassion ultimately is. It's the natural caring that we human beings are all capable of. And so what I've been studying and what I've been teaching is, 'OK, so now we know we're capable of it. But how do you naturally go there?' Not saying, 'You're supposed to be compassionate. Get out there and be compassionate', but go through an experience of it. And so what I learned was this idea of needs, and what you could call 'needs-based empathy' where we're really trying to find out, not who's right or who's wrong. We're trying to find out, 'How are you? What are you needing right now? What is your life calling for?'

Kim Forrester:   6:07
Wow. You say that, actually, in your book. You say that 'making things better' ought to become more important than who's right and who's wrong. What do you actually mean by that?

Thom Bond:   6:18
Well, theoretically, we're moving through time here; evolving. And so, we have so much energy and so many years on this planet. If we use them fighting over what the answer is, we may never really get to the answer. And so what I want to do is say, 'Let's figure out to not fight and let's get on the same side of the table, so to speak, and say we both want the answer; we all want the answer.' And it's really true. I mean, I look at here, in the States. We have this huge divide between conservatives and liberals. And how can we, as somebody who maybe holds a different position, still relate to somebody? And it's not going to be about whether they're right or wrong, or whether we agree with them or not. What it's going to be about is, 'Oh, you're a human being just like I am and you love your family just like I do. And you want the world to be a better place, just like I do. And you need love and support just like I do.' 

Kim Forrester:   7:18
That's so cool because - I also studied philosophy - right and wrong are such fleeting concepts. Right and wrong - it depends on where and when you are in the universe.

Thom Bond:   7:30
Yes, and there is no right/wrong in nature. Only us humans make that up.

Kim Forrester:   7:34
Correct. But needs are universal and, in many cases, unchanging. Certainly, you know, over eons.

Thom Bond:   7:44
Absolutely, we're given them. We're born with them. It's part of the human model.

Kim Forrester:   7:47
So, it seems like such a powerful place to start with compassion. I love it so much. How has understanding compassion, Tom, helped you personally flourish in life? How has your life changed since you started studying and actively pursuing this concept of compassion?

Thom Bond:   8:06
It's such a big question. But the answer that just pops into my mind is that I have something with me all the time, now - all the time - that I never had before. And that is the ability to connect to human beings ... and human beings, by the way, who have done things that I might find absolutely abhorrent, absolutely horrible. And can I connect to you? Yeah, I can when I want to. It doesn't mean I always want to, or I'm supposed to. But having the ability to create connection, like the skill to create connection, when we want to, is really powerful. I mean, think of all the fights that we've been in, and we didn't even want to be in that fight. But we were in it because we couldn't figure out how to get out. And then we thought we got out, and then we got back in. And this is a really amazing way to readdress that situation and look at it from a new perspective. And I'm not saying it's easy. This isn't like a step one, step two, step three - now your life's going to change. I mean, I imagine, Kim, you know this by now. It's really a life work in some ways.

Kim Forrester:   9:13
So what is the 'why' behind it, then? There's a lot of work, I know that. It takes a lot of courage, there's a lot of messy stuff you have to look at within yourself - certainly from my own experience - to sort of extend that kind of empathy and understanding to other people. Especially when you really want to not like them, right? Especially when you really want to be righteous and right. What's the benefit for us to do this?

Thom Bond:   9:37
For me, it helps me tap into a wisdom that is so much greater than mine. And that is what I call the wisdom of life. Life figures out so many things, and so if I can somehow tap into that wisdom, then it changes how I go through every day. It changes, as one of my students was saying, it changed her relationship with her husband, with her pets, with her plants. And it's true. It's what I call the parallel universe of life. I am walking around, and we can all walk around seeing this thing that's happening all around us in a way we've never seen it before. Yes, we have a scientific definition of life, but there's something else for us, as individuals, that we can connect to. When we do that, that's when this natural compassion occurs. So there's a step, and the step is: become aware. Become aware of certain things, even. We purposely become aware of needs. And we purposely become aware of feelings, as well, because those are the aura, if you will, of needs. And so, when we do that, we don't have to try to be compassionate. We cannot help it but be compassionate.

Kim Forrester:   11:03
What I love about what you're saying there, though, is it brings it back to ... in the world today, there are many, many, many of us on the planet who are trying to change the world. Right? Trying to change the world so that we feel better about the world and the way that we live. And what you're sort of bringing up there, for me, is a deeper truth in that it's not actually about changing the world - which we are really not equipped to do - but rather about changing our perspective of what's going on in the world, right?  

Thom Bond:   11:31
Absolutely. Absolutely.  

Kim Forrester:   11:32
So let's unpack this experience of compassion. I want to go a little bit deeper into it. For instance, do you think it's possible for compassion to coexist with other emotions like anger or disappointment? Can we be angry and compassionate, Thom? Can we be disappointed and compassionate?

Thom Bond:   11:53
So first answer, no. Second answer, yes. And the reason for that is, I just want to talk about anger. And let's talk about judgement because that's what fuels anger. And can I hold two perspectives at the same time? Not well. I can go back and forth, but I really can't hold them at the same time. And one of the things that I've learned is to recognise when I'm angry and understand that, when I'm angry, I already know what's going on. There are three things going on automatically. I know this when I'm angry. The first one is that I have an unmet need. I'm never angry if my needs are met. I'm only angry when I have unmet needs. And even then, because sometimes when I have unmet needs, I'm sad or I'm disappointed, disheartened. Well, when I'm angry, there's something else. There's another component, and that is the judgement component. And so I have a 'should-shouldn't' thought. Right? And so now I have a choice. By the way, the third thing is, I'm about to do something that's going to guarantee my need won't be met. Once we know, once we can go from 'should-shouldn't' to 'I would love to have', that's the shift, right there. That I can see needs and I can make this shift and say, 'Well, what would I rather do? Blame people for my unmet needs or identify them and make a decision?' Maybe that person who I'm thinking should meet my needs is the last person in the world I should be going to, to meet that need. And so, by even recognising needs themselves and, like I said, this parallel universe, we start to be discriminating and we can start to make what you could call 'strategic decisions' about how we get our needs met. We start to have a relationship with them. And, you know, I've said this before, it changes everything. It actually gets to change, kind of, the frequency and the information that you're working with on a moment to moment level. What do you get from doing all this work? You get choice: to be and to act in accordance with your values when your mind - your angry judgement mind - is trying to tear you away. Why? There's a path that we can take to get from there, to the other place.  

Kim Forrester:   14:25

Thom Bond:   14:26
I think the thing is, that we've learned to separate. There so many of us humans that we've learned to not notice one another. And more importantly, we're very far apart sometimes - we don't even see one another. But if you had a four-year-old child starving to death on your doorstep, what would you do?  

Kim Forrester:   14:46
You'd feed them.

Thom Bond:   14:51
You'd feed that kid, right? But we all know, right now, that there are four-year-old children that are starving. Right now. But why aren't we doing anything? Because we've lost the human to human connection.

Kim Forrester:   15:02
What about compassion fatigue, though? You know, you bring up the suffering that's going on around in the world that, I feel like, we actually choose to divorce ourselves from. Because sometimes, Thom, it just seems ...

Thom Bond:   15:14
We need to.

Kim Forrester:   15:14
It feels too big. So do you believe there's such a thing as compassion fatigue? And, if so, how do we avoid it?

Thom Bond:   15:22
Yeah. So I've noticed since I've been studying, two things that I found pretty important. One is that I am surrounded by miracles. I've also discovered that I'm surrounded by pain. And so, I am in this place where I could go either way. I could spend the rest of my life crying, there's no doubt. And I could also spend the rest of my life dancing around the planet saying, 'This is amazing. This is amazing.' So what do we do? Well, we make choices and we decide, 'Where do I want to live? How am I going to really get through this human life without falling into a pit of despair, or without making believe everything's roses when it's not?' So it's about us checking in with ourselves and noticing how well we're taking care of ourselves. And that's something that isn't often talked about when we talk about compassion. It's usually like, compassion for others. The thing is, we need to have compassion for ourselves because, as it turns out, we're humans, too. And so, that was one of the first things that I noticed. I was brought up with the idea that my needs came second, and then I was supposed to really reach out and take care of other people. The thing is, if that's all I did, I would have compassion fatigue.

Kim Forrester:   16:49
You have brought me to a very personal space with that answer because I am a recovering people pleaser. So this next question is one I think is actually really important for me and for people like me. Does understanding the needs behind a person's behaviour, okay - so applying compassion in that situation - Thom, does that mean that we also have to condone or accept that behaviour, especially if it doesn't serve us?

Thom Bond:   17:14
Well, that just goes right to what I said. And that is, when I go into a situation, I'm there. We're always there. And so if we're going to be compassionate ... compassionate doesn't have a boundary. We can be compassionate for ourselves, and that's where we can start to make what I'll call 'informed decisions'. So the answer could be that, 'Now that I understand what you're doing, yeah, it doesn't bother me so much. I get it. I thought you should be doing something else, but I think I get it now.' But then there are other times when we would say, 'I understand why you're doing this and there is no way - no way - I'm going to sit here and let it happen.' In fact, I would ... there's a concept that I love called the compassionate use of force. Compassion is not about being a wimp. Compassion is about being connected to life. And so, that means sometimes being forceful. For example, a two-year-old running into the street. Am I going to say, 'I understand why you're doing that now. But, you know, I don't know. I think it might not be safe over there.' You know? So it's like, no, you're going to run out there and you're going to grab that child. But in compassion, what I do is I grab the child and I say, 'Oh, woah! That was so scary! I was afraid you were going to get hurt because cars don't expect to see you in the road. And in fact, I'm going to put you in this little playpen that we have here because I want to know you're going to be safe.' Now, let's do a rerun on this because we could go through that again ... Let's go through that again. What if my child runs into the street and I say, 'Bad boy, bad boy! You're not supposed to go in the street!' And I give him a swat on the heinie and I put him in the playpen, and I say, 'Now you stay there. Don't you ever do that again.' Imagine that. Now, that was the exact same thing that happened. I mean, if you were watching that without sound, right, with a camera, you would think the same thing just happened. Which in some ways it did: you protected; we used force. But in one way we did it with, like, punishment in our hearts. And the first way, we did it with compassion in our hearts. And that's the thing that we can do. That's the thing I want to look for. That's the opportunity that we all have when we can get to needs. Whenever I'm angry, my favourite three words: What is that?

Kim Forrester:   19:57
Oh, that's cool. Many people, Thom, use the words empathy and compassion interchangeably. However, you describe empathy as a concept that's quite distinct from compassion - although it's one that apparently plays a very important role. Can you explain the difference between these two concepts and share why empathy is an important part of compassion. 

Thom Bond:   20:20
Yeah. Well, we don't need empathy if we're already connected, we will just naturally be compassionate for people - like the three-year-old, or four-year-old girl on our front steps, right? So in that case, we don't need empathy. We have understanding. We have that understanding and then the natural compassion occurs. And so, what empathy does is, it helps us kind of counteract this thing we've been going through for the past 3000 years, which is that we've been separating from our needs and creating structures that we follow instead of our life energy.

Kim Forrester:   20:53
So empathy is literally putting oneself in another person's shoes and understanding life from their point of view? Is that what you'd say empathy is?

Thom Bond:   21:03
Yes and no. I would say it would be standing right next to their shoes. But I'm still in my shoes. There's a big distinction that, I think, I just found it so helpful. Just this idea of what we call sympathy, which is co-feeling the same feeling you're having through an imagined shared experience. And then there's what I call empathy. And I know this is not how Webster sees it. Yet. But we're going to change that. In empathy... the best description I ever heard of empathy was, it's like going into their world with two things: your passport and a rubber band that's attached to your waist; that's connected in your life. And so, to me, 'Yeah, I'm in your world, but I'm not you. And I'm understanding you and I'm always ...' That's the passport, right? I'm me. I'm just a person, and 'I'm here in your world. I came into your world, but I'm not ... I'm still connected to my world', right? That's the rubber band. And so that's, to me, how I like to think of empathy. That it's a full 'being with' that person but not putting yourself in their shoes. It's understanding their shoes and being with them, in your shoes.

Kim Forrester:   22:28
Yeah, and then integrating that understanding back into your perspective, and your reality, and your world.  

Thom Bond:   22:34
Exactly. Because I'm human, just like you. And I have needs, just like you.

Kim Forrester:   22:39
You also teach that curiosity is important in activating compassion. How so?

Thom Bond:   22:45
Well, this kind of addresses this idea of right/wrong. We've just been so trained to be right/wrong. I see it in little children - they're trained to be, 'I'm right. I'm right. I won on this.' And this is something else. This isn't about being right or wrong. This is just about understanding.

Kim Forrester:   23:06
It's even a simple as, you said when you feel anger, you become curious about what that anger is, right? What is this?

Thom Bond:   23:14
Right. When I'm trying to think of who's right, who's wrong, I'm not thinking about what's alive in the moment. 'Who's in front of me?' I'm so busy thinking about how to fix them or whatever. So the curiosity is really how I can create that connection. Just slow down and be with that person. Be curious. 'What are they going through?' And be curious for yourself? 'What am I going through?'

Kim Forrester:   23:38
Thom, do you think it's possible to extend compassion into the online space? Do you think it's feasible that we can discern what someone's needs are from their online behaviour?

Thom Bond:   23:52
I think our online behaviour is different in that we don't seem to feel as connected to the people, so we can say things and do things without having the result. Like, if I said something that was really kind of offensive to you, you'd make a face. You might leave. I don't have to worry about that online. And so, I consider that a tragedy, by the way. And I think it comes from ... I just think our entire species is suffering, right now, from disconnection. And that is ...  I mean, for five million years, we've functioned very differently than this. The Internet, telephones, television - if you look at the timeline of our existence, this only happened in the last few seconds, so to speak, of our existence. So we've created things that have an effect on us, like television, like the Internet. And so I'm thinking, 'Well, wouldn't be a good idea if we responded to that when it had effects that we didn't like?' And way, way back in the day, there was a guy named Alvin Toffler who wrote a book called Future Shock. And he talked about this kind of rhythm that we go through, and I think he might be right. And that is that - he calls it 'high touch, high tech' - in that we have a high tech thing that kind of creates this separation, but then we have a high touch response. I know that my work, you could call it a high touch response, and it is growing. So I do see that kind of ebb and flow happening.

Kim Forrester:   25:36
Well, let's go there. Do you feel that we, in our increasingly disconnected world, do you feel that we're ready for compassion now?

Thom Bond:   25:45
It's interesting because, like I said, there's like 'Go be compassionate!' compassion. And then there's 'I just can't help it. I care about people.' And in the mediation businesses, there's a term called 'worn out'. It's when a conflict has just been going on for so long that both sides have just said, 'Let's just figure this out, please.' I'm hoping. I'm hoping that we'll just get worn out - and that we are getting worn out, right now, I see it - and that we'll say, 'You know what? We gotta do something else.' And then that's why I'm here. When you make that choice, when you make that decision, then what do you do? It's like, 'What do you do?' And that's why I wrote the course; that's why I wrote the book. What do you do? Well, you connect to life.

Kim Forrester:   26:32
You start reintroducing that connection back into humanity.

Thom Bond:   26:36
Right. Because we share that.

Kim Forrester:   26:38
So how about extending compassion beyond humanity? Do the same principles apply, do you think, when it comes to having compassion for other living beings; having compassion for the Earth herself? 

Thom Bond:   26:50
I would say, yes. And it's interesting when I think about having compassion for the Earth - it's simultaneously compassion for myself. I'm that connected to it. Right? We're part of the same thing. And so I don't really connect like, 'Oh you, Earth, over there and me, Thom, over here.' I really do see my compassion in that regard for the being that is 'us'.

Kim Forrester:   27:10
Once we've learned the skills, Thom, once we've done your compassion course and, you know, and are stepping forward towards having a more compassionate view of others and the world around us, is it something that we're able to teach to others? Do you think we even have the right to sort of encourage others to be more compassionate?

Thom Bond:   27:31
I love that because, you know, in my workshops I'll say, 'I'm not saying you're supposed to do this! I'm just telling you about it.' That's how I feel. I don't want to be an empathy evangelist or compassion evangelist. I just want to be there when you're ready.

Kim Forrester:   27:46
Okay.  And you feel that many people will get to the place where they're ready?

Thom Bond:   27:51
Yeah, and part of it has to be to understand that there is even an alternative, right? You're not going to jump out of a boat unless you know there's another boat you're jumping into. And I see, that's my life. I'm building a boat for people. I have been, and there are people stepping into it. And I always say, 'Don't get in my boat, don't get in this boat until it's ready. Build it. Let's build a boat together for a while.' That's my relationship with all my students and participants. It's like, 'Yeah, we're building a boat together. We're building an alternative so that we have choice as to how we deal with conflict and disconnection in our lives.'

Kim Forrester:   28:30
My final question, Thom, is one that I ask every guest on the Eudaemonia podcast. Can you offer my listeners a simple morning reminder? This might be a practice, a mantra, perhaps an affirmation - something that my listeners can start using, today, to help them boost their capacity for compassion.

Thom Bond:   28:48
I would say ... I'm going to cheat a little here because it's easy to have compassion in the morning because life hasn't happened yet. My suggestion is going to be about something we can use any time. I've already talked about it, but it's so profound and so simple. It's called those three words: What is that? And so the practice is that I'm going to suggest, with your permission, is that you just, when you're angry, when we get angry - as soon as we feel that anger, the second that invades our body, and we all know what it feels like, if you pay attention, you'll know - ask yourself, 'What is that?' And when you ask yourself that question, the answer is going to be a need. You could look up the needs sheets online - I think they're on the NYCNBC website - and just get familiar with those words. First of all, I love having a sheet covered with needs that I didn't even know I had. It's like getting that big box of crayons when I was a kid. You know, I had the little eight-box, and then somebody gave me a 64 crayon box and I was like, 'Yes, I can use this!' And that's really what the need sheet is. It's how we can really see our lives and articulate our lives. And understand our lives. And so that way, when we say, 'What is that?' we have an answer.

Kim Forrester:   30:23
Thom Bond, your annual compassion course begins in June, and at just over a dollar each week, it's incredibly accessible to everybody. Where can participants learn more about the course and the work that you do?

Thom Bond:   30:36
Well on the web, it's just The Compassion Course or We have 6000 in the course, right now. You can register for $72, for $36, and you can also apply for a full scholarship as well.

Kim Forrester:   30:52
Thom, it's just been such a delight to have you here on the Eudaemonia podcast. Thank you so much for coming and sharing all that you've learned and all that you're learning about compassion.

Thom Bond:   31:02
My pleasure. Really, thanks. Thanks for having me along.

Kim Forrester:   31:06
As the American writer, Eric Hoffer, once said, 'Compassion is the antitoxin of the soul. Where there is compassion, even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless.' You have been listening to the Eudaemonia podcast. If you'd like to learn more about how to live a truly flourishing life, please subscribe and check out for more inspiring episodes. I'm Kim Forrester. Until next time, be well, be kind to yourself and consciously choose compassion.