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A Magazine for Sheffield

"Compassion is in all of us": How Compassionate Sheffield is building care and community

We spoke to Ruth, Mariana and Nick from Compassionate Sheffield about how they are creating spaces and projects in the city that celebrate and nurture human connection.

Stories from the Pandemic reflective creative workshop at Lowfield Primary School

Stories from the Pandemic reflective creative workshop, hosted by Compassionate Sheffield at Lowfield Primary School.

Compassionate Sheffield takes an asset-based approach to all of its work, which starts with ‘what’s strong, not what’s wrong’ within communities. It also centres the importance of good relationships to the health of our communities and ourselves.

The public health project, which is hosted by St Luke’s Hospice but operates independently, was central to Sheffield’s Covid memorial activities, which included workshops and more for the Stories From The Pandemic project. On the theme of death and dying, which they have identified as a position of shared ground for building compassion, Ruth, Nick and Mariana host ‘death cafes’ to encourage open discussion and sharing.

Also running in Sheffield throughout May is a series of events under the national Dying Matters banner. Mariana also works as an End of Life Doula, providing support to dying people and their loved ones in Sheffield.

I spoke to the CS team about the thinking behind what they do and their experiences working with communities across the city.

We're living in a world which increasingly feels polarised, socially and politically. We've got all these methods of communication, but we're often kind of lacking in human connection. To me, in that context, it feels quite radical to have compassion at the centre of what you're doing as an organisation. Why is that important for each of you?

[Nick]

I think, for me, compassion is a step beyond kindness.

Michael West has provided a really helpful framework for us to think about compassion through his Compassionate Leadership work. The first step he talks about is being there and being present.

I think not only with the polarised nature of society, but also how distracted we are, how organisations and marketing and consumption grabs our attention. We are constantly, constantly distracted. It really felt quite profound for me when I was talking to Michael West about this, when we started the project, of that importance of being present.

And then he talks about listening, actively listening. Again, I think that's really important, because we hear soundbites – that's just how we absorb a lot of information, and that's how we then form our view of somebody or something. By actively listening, you have to be patient, and you have to not just listen to form your own opinion; you have to listen to then empathise and understand and really relate to somebody on a human level. And then think about taking an action that is based on creating that human connection and that empathy.

I think why compassion feels so important, and so crucial to the grounding of all the work that we're doing, are those four steps. And, actually, how easy it is to not do any of those four steps in the current world…

[Ruth]

When you bring people together, you create the connection. And the connection I think, as Nick was saying, is the thing that's been lost. Once you feel that connection, so much happens around it. The care and the compassion follows.

It's not that it's been missing from everybody's life, but it has got squashed out quite a lot. I think part of that is to do with a lot of promises in the world that someone else is going to fix something. So it's almost like, ‘We don't need to be compassionate,’ you know? ‘Somebody else will sort that.’

I think that post-Covid people had some feel-good factor around being compassionate, and just having the lid lifted again, so that we recognise that we could be compassionate. It's a real win-win, because we feel better for it, we make an impact straight away… And that is hugely empowering.

It's about allowing us to be vulnerable.

[Mariana]

That's why I love working with these two, you see!

I think compassion is at the core of humanity. It’s something that we all share, and we all have in common, and allows us to find other things.

I’m speaking here as an End of Life Doula, but if you want to find something that survives, that is love and compassion. It’s that stone that makes that ripple effect. When you start doing something compassionate, the person [who] receives it, probably, is going to start doing something compassionate. And by that, we start really small, but at the end, you feel this ripple effect that moves all the water around us.

Having a dig around on the Compassionate Sheffield website, there's this idea of: you can have empathy, but perhaps without action, that's not compassion. Yes, empathy is the first stage but actually, you need to act on it in some way…

[Nick]

…and I think some people will feel that emotion and then not act on it, because they don't feel confident to act on it. And similarly, within the health and social care system, we're obsessed by tasks and actions, so that we can count them in order to then report to somebody about the actions that we've done. The criticism that I would have, sometimes, with the health and social care system is that they don't listen at the beginning in order to know what the intelligent action is. It’s very often pre-prescribed.

So compassion has real value in lots of different contexts, within society and within communities, but it's also a really helpful unit of change within the health and social care system as well. Because I think if we're better at listening and understanding and empathising, we’ll help to reduce inequalities.

Lots of people don't access services because they are very one-size-fits-all. They're not based on listening; they're based on just action, action, action.

[Ruth]

I think compassion is a really holistic thing. It's holistic to listen and to empathise, to be present and to then act.

It sort of goes against the grain of the way everything's run, and it's just when those needs are there within any specific communities. I think that's something we're trying to do, where we're identifying needs in communities.

There's an element of a challenge within it as well, isn't there? I know I'm guilty of this – you have a thought which is coming from a place of empathy or understanding, you congratulate yourself on that, but you don’t act on it. And so it just sort of dissipates. You're challenging people to up their game in that respect, aren't you? To say, ‘Let's follow this through to its conclusion…’

[Nick]

Totally. I think we've used the tagline, ‘Small things, big difference’.

In lots of other settings, you could use quite a deficit-based language. You could say, ‘People aren't good enough,’ [or], ‘You should do more’. Actually, what I suppose we're trying to say is just doing a small thing makes a massive difference, and it totally changes the angle.

We're trying to create as many spaces and places as possible to give people confidence to unlock their compassion. Because I suppose we believe that compassion is in all of us.

[Mariana]

And that's why we are focusing on empowering people and empowering communities. Because if we don't act, nothing is going to change – even if we feel beautiful inside.

[Ruth]

A really important part of that is allowing people the space to tell stories – their story, whatever it is. You sit in that space and you listen, and you think, ‘I knew nothing about this person when they walked in the room.’ You hear something really astonishing, or really profound, and it's just their life. It's not astonishing because they did something like Batman [laughs] It's astonishing because they just saw a need, and went and helped.

When you hear that frequently, in a space, by the end you feel this complete change in the room… It's incredibly empowering. You go out feeling lighter and stronger and more connected.

[Mariana]

And we discover that we are more similar than we think, we share more things than we think. And then when we are humbled and vulnerable and we share these important aspects of life and humanity, that knowledge, I think, empowers us to create a difference.

Compassion in a one-on-one setting perhaps comes more naturally to people than compassion at a societal or global level. I feel like often we see compassion, even empathy, as this weakness that could be exploited at a societal level. You see that through narratives around welfare benefits, for example. How do we start to counter that, at a societal level?

[Nick]

You used the example [of benefits], but my mind went straight to immigration and refugees.

I think othering is done consistently as a way of organising us and then being able to exert influence.

On a macro level, don't start from what your preconceived ideas are and what actions you want to take against that person. Start from the position of just being present and listening, and seeking to understand.

It's not an easy battle, which is why we've chosen death and loss as a place of starting [for Compassionate Sheffield], because I think you could apply this to almost any context. I could be a millionaire, or I could be homeless, I will have an experience of death and loss… It’s a real leveller.

[Ruth]

I had a couple of thoughts on it. One is that all systems are people… Actually, in the end, we shouldn't feel so nervous that we can't change them.

On a global level, if you look at most interventions, they're nearly all – whether they're economic, or war, or political, or religious – they're fear driven, on the whole. So if there is a way of showing that compassion actually is really quite a powerful place to be, that's the trick.

That's where the challenge lies, somehow. I think it feels, especially at the moment, that fear drives things, and I think that that's passed down into our big institutions, that's where maybe some of the toxicity lies. People's reluctance is because we feel so entrenched in and enmeshed in it. But I think that [with] the micro stuff – whether we're working with individuals, or communities or organisations, and we're doing all three – you do start to show that it's really quite a powerful thing to be compassionate.

[Mariana]

It's obvious to me that we are doing it wrong… We are unhappy with ourselves, we are not connected with our fellows, we are destroying the planet. But then if we change it, as we are trying, and instead of being driven by fear, we are driven by love, by compassion, self compassion, I'm sure that will be a success. Contrasting, isn't it? We will save ourselves, we will save humanity, we will save the planet – and we will be happy. I don't know. Maybe I'm just a dreamer!

Death Cafe Newfield Green Library

A death cafe event, hosted by Compassionate Sheffield at Newfield Green Library.

Compassionate Sheffield

I wonder what place we need to be in in ourselves – psychologically, spiritually, however, you want to describe that – to be open enough to take part in this process of compassion. Where does self care fit into this picture for you?

[Mariana]

I think it's really, really important that we start with ourselves and with the people around us, with family and so on. And for me, more important than words are actions. So if you are compassionate with yourself, naturally you're going to be compassionate with others and people might learn more from that example than from your words.

It starts from us, from always loving yourself and being compassionate with ourselves and then expanding a little, bit by bit, to others… Because you cannot give what you don't have.

[Ruth]

But I also think that sometimes as well, for some people it can be a compassionate act that they do, and that is the first thing that triggers them taking care of themselves as well.

Everyone who we're in connection with – and we're meeting hundreds of people across Sheffield doing this… It's such an open thing that you can step into. But once you have, you've crossed some threshold, you're in it and you know it's a good thing. And it's quite hard to turn back after that.

You can see for some people, they're just recognising in themselves something they're already doing, because that's really helpful. For some people, it's something new.

[Nick]

I think I just wanted to add in as well… often the people who are in caring roles – whether that's professionally, or whether they’re a primary carer – tend to put other people first. And that can lead to a degree of burnout… If we're not self compassionate, we then lose our ability to provide care to other people.

As part of the Covid Memorial Project, we gave out 54 community grants to different groups or organisations. Then we did some analysis to see where the gaps were; nobody had thought about looking after the people who were doing the looking after! So one of the big gaps were voluntary sector and care staff. A lot of those groups had put in applications for the people that they were supporting, but nobody had actually thought about themselves in that journey.

So we took some positive action to reach out to lots of groups who were underrepresented in the application process. But I thought it was quite an interesting observation that nobody thought about themselves from that position.

Maybe they had thought, ‘That's me being selfish.’ Rather than thinking actually, this is really important. It's actually contingent on me being able to continue acting compassionately.

[Mariana]

I think it's beautiful that you brought this out because I'm guilty of that. You know, they say put your oxygen mask on first yourself to be able to help others… and we normally forget about that.

[Ruth]

As one of our responses to filling those gaps in the community grants, we ran an event which was specifically for voluntary and community sector workers. A lot of people came who I know do really full-on, frontline work, and they were almost apologetic about being there.

But of course, when you provide that space, this kind of watching people melt into it almost, and hear each other who they think are pretty tough frontline deliverers go, ‘Actually, you know, that actually was really hard. And I hadn't thought about this.’ It's almost like a coming down, and being present again.

Facilitating Stories from the Pandemic at SADACCA in collaboration with SACHMA and SCCC photo by Ruth Nutter

Facilitating Stories from the Pandemic at SADACCA, in collaboration with SACHMA and SCCC.

Ruth Nutter

When you think about the project that you're all running, and its aims and objectives, what's the best thing that could happen?

[Ruth]

I do think there's something about seeing different relationships and connections blossom, whether that's with us or with other people, and watching things join up. And you do get feedback on that.

[Mariana]

I was going to say – people supporting themselves. Individually and as a society, as a group, as a community, flourishing in what's important for them.

What do you need from communities in Sheffield to make Compassionate Sheffield as successful as it can be?

[Mariana]

I think if we as humans – no matter the colour of your skin, your religious beliefs, where you are from – if we just actually see our hearts, we will see that love is the answer.

[Nick]

I would encourage communities to just focus on what unites them, not what divides them. And if they know people within their community who are lonely, or displaying behaviours that don't seem like they're cohesive, just take some time to understand why… Just take a step back and just think why, and even try and engage and have a conversation with that individual and reach out to him, because it's so beneficial on a community and on a societal level to have that connection. And that energy is good for you. It's good for our health. It's good for our mental health and our wellbeing.

What meaning was made for you, if any, as a result of our conversation today?

[Mariana]

I don't know about a meaning but a feeling – and this has filled me with hope.

[Ruth]

It reminds me that what we're doing is tricky, but simple. You know, it actually has kind of filled me with a slight anxiety around the complexity of it, but then also, in exactly the same breath, the complete confidence that we have our humanity, we have our compassion. So it's sticking with the programme.

[Nick]

I think this conversation has been almost a compassionate intervention in itself!

It makes me feel really proud, actually, of the work that we're doing. I think there's real value in just stopping and reassessing, and because we can get so wrapped up in our day-to-day, in our projects, this has been quite a nice dip out of that. It's confirmed for me that I think we are doing the right things, and in the right ways.

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