Embracing Common Humanity with Three Minds Psychology

Joining us for this episode are Dr Anna Weller and Dr Katy Stevens, clinical psychologists with over 20 years of experience in trauma-focused work.

Together, they founded Three Minds Psychology to promote the importance of compassion in the workplace.

Here’s the TL;DR:

  • Compassion is defined as approaching and managing suffering with empathy, communication, and understanding, rather than avoiding it
  • Human brains are wired for social connection and belonging, meaning can trigger threat-based emotions when individuals feel disconnected or judged
  • Fostering compassion in the workplace operates at both individual and team levels, involving skills training in mindfulness and emotional regulation, and promoting compassionate communication and psychological safety
  • Senior leaders play a crucial role in modelling and setting tone for a compassionate workplace, with their active involvement being essential for the successful implementation of compassion-focused practices
  • Effective strategies for implementing compassion in larger organisations can involve both top-down approaches and breaking down hierarchies to foster genuine, cross-boundary conversations and relationships

Links from this episode:

Three Minds Psychology Website

Three Minds Psychology LinkedIn

Dr Katy Stevens LinkedIn

Dr Anna Weller LinkedIn

Follow us on LinkedIn and connect with Harry.

Episode transcript:

Harry: I’m really excited for today’s conversation. I’ve been catching up with our team on it, and we’re going to be exploring and diving into compassion. It’s something that I grew up with since my dad was a psychologist. I’ve heard loads about this, but I still have so many questions. For our audience today, could you start by sharing a bit about your background? I found it fascinating learning more about that recently.

Anna: Yeah, sure. It’s really great to be here. Both Katy and I are clinical psychologists, and we have extensive experience working in the NHS, over 20 years between us. We have specialised in trauma-focused work, specifically supporting people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and complex PTSD. Through that work, we came to the field of compassion, which we’re now both really passionate about.

Harry: Amazing, beautiful. And you started Three Minds Psychology a year ago, is that right?

Anna: Yes, a year ago. We both took the leap to start Three Minds Psychology. We were super passionate about getting compassion out there into the workplace, so we set up Three Minds Psychology, and it’s really taken off from there.

Harry: Katy, in terms of compassion, what would be your definition? If someone asked what compassion is, how do you define it within 20 seconds or so?

Katy: Compassion is all about how we approach our own and other people’s suffering, how we turn towards our distress rather than avoid it or run away from it, which can often be our default. It’s about taking steps to alleviate that distress and doing so within the pillars of compassionate values, understanding, empathy, and communication. It’s about approaching and managing our distress and others’ distress in a way that acknowledges those important values.

Harry: Anna, how important is it that we develop a compassionate workplace? It’s something we’re really conscious of internally within Champion. We try to do it, but it’s impossible to get it right 100% of the time. What is the importance for organisations to get it right?

Anna: There is a huge need for compassion in the world right now, specifically in workplaces. To understand that, we need to spend a little time thinking about the human brain. As human beings, we have a fundamental need to belong. We thrive on human connection and need to feel accepted by our peers and group. We’re very sensitive to social threat, which means that when we perceive we’re not accepted by our group or are somehow disliked or judged, we’re easily triggered into feeling threat-based emotions.

Our brain’s alarm system for danger gets triggered when we feel unaccepted and disconnected. Workplaces are essentially social environments, and we function best when relationships feel safe.

Compassion-focused therapy helps us recognise when our threat-focused brains are triggered and brings balance and emotional regulation to our minds. Workplaces are innately triggering because they are social at heart, and they function in hierarchies with constant judgment, appraisals, and deadlines. This often triggers emotions like fear, anxiety, and dread. Hence, we need to bring compassion to these environments.

Harry: I completely agree with everything you said. Katy, I’d love to get your thoughts on what interventions you’ve seen work. One thing we found is that senior leaders respond well to data. Can you really get data on compassion? How would you go about collecting it? If you found compassion lacking in the workplace, what kind of interventions would you generally encourage organisations to implement?

Katy: That’s a really good question. When we think about interventions, there are two levels: the personal level and the team level.

At the personal level, unless individuals can function within a mindset that allows them to feel soothed, calm, and safe, they will struggle to be productive. When we function from a threat-focused mindset, the part of our brain responsible for productivity and creativity shuts down. So, supporting individuals to recognise when they’re in a threat-focused mindset, when they’re experiencing burnout or stress, and to step out of that into a compassionate mindset is crucial.

At the team level, we need to support teams to communicate compassionately. We can only do this if individuals first look after themselves. When individuals turn up with a compassionate mindset, they can communicate compassionately with others, which fosters psychological safety. This encourages people to share ideas, admit struggles, and ask for help without fear.

Harry: A lot of that reminds me of the socio-psychological model I researched, which looks at individual, environmental, and societal impacts. One big question we get is whether workplace health is the organisation’s responsibility, the individuals, or the social constructs in between. It’s all of those. I love how you broke that down. Regarding further interventions, is one-on-one coaching or training most effective? What can organisations delve into practically?

Anna: When we talk about compassion, we use the term “compassionate mind training” because it’s not our default position. Our human brain functions from a survival perspective, recognising danger first. Interventions can vary depending on the target.

At an individual level, skills training supports individuals in developing mindful attention, recognising threat-based emotions, and learning skills to calm the threat system. Collectively, communication skills can be learned in a group environment, requiring commitment and intentionality from teams to engage in compassion-focused communication. This isn’t our default, and we need to practice it.

Harry: We’ve not been designed for the environments we live in. We need to learn how to cope, manage, and foster a compassionate culture.

My final question: I was watching a series about Chernobyl, which depicted a non-compassionate organisation lacking psychological safety. People weren’t listened to, and it showed the power of senior leaders in setting the tone for compassion. Katy, how important are senior leaders in role-modelling these behaviours versus galvanizing it from the ground up?

Katy: Senior leaders are fundamental in setting the tone for a compassion-focused workplace. If it’s not embraced by senior leaders, it’s difficult to implement at any level. Senior leaders need to promote a compassionate workplace actively.

For example, “leaving loudly,” where senior leaders announce when they’re logging off, sets a tone around work expectations and communication styles. If not promoted at a senior level, it feels imposed rather than collaborative. It’s crucial for senior leaders to be part of the journey toward a compassionate organisation.

Harry: Would you recommend starting with senior leaders and filtering it down in medium to large organisations, especially when training a large number of people?

Katy: There are two approaches, and neither is right or wrong. Starting at a certain level and filtering down can be effective, but there’s also power in breaking down hierarchies. Sitting in a room with senior leaders and having conversations about values and feeling heard can be more powerful. Compassion is about embracing our common humanity. Bringing people together and breaking down hierarchies through training fosters a compassionate workplace. That’s something we try to do, working across boundaries where possible.

Harry: Thank you so much, Katy and Anna, for joining us on today’s podcast. There’s so much I’ve taken away, and I’m sure our listeners have as well.

If anyone wants to find out more information, visit Three Minds Psychology. Hopefully, we’ll see more of Katy and Anna in the future.

Katy and Anna: Thank you so much for having us.