Trainers are continually striving to facilitate behavior change. Although everyone is capable of learning new skills, some people seem to be able to pick them up faster than others. They embrace new learning, take healthy risks and learn from mistakes. Others hold back, make excuses, worry about doing it perfectly the first time and prefer to watch instead of trying it themselves. This difference is especially salient when it comes to tackling difficult topics like conflict or diversity and inclusion.

The difference between these two types of learners is mindset.

The mindset concept isn’t new. Carol Dweck pioneered research on the growth mindset, and the Arbinger Institute coined the term “outward mindset.” We know that the right mindset can facilitate positive change.

So, what mindset is necessary for effectively engaging with conflict, diversity and inclusion? It starts with compassion — but not the traditional version of compassion that focuses exclusively on empathy, kindness, caring and selflessness. It’s the kind of compassion that incorporates the full meaning of the word, originating from the Latin root meaning “to struggle with.” The compassion mindset is an attitude toward ourselves and others that facilitates the process of struggling with each other in a spirit of dignity.

Next Element’s research over the past decade has revealed that the compassion mindset has three switches. Each one is necessary, but not sufficient, for a trainer to fully engage compassionate behavior. When the switches are on, the trainer uses energy to facilitate and create. When the switches are off, he or she uses energy i to undermine and destroy.

Compassion Mindset Model


Compassion allows us to be personal without making it personal.

When the “value” switch is on, we view ourselves and others as innately valuable because we are human. We believe that we are created equal and deserve to be included as equals on the human playing field. This switch is a fundamental first step, because it assumes that people’s experiences, feelings and motivations are legitimate and valuable, even if we don’t understand them or agree with them. Our goal, then, is not to judge but to understand, validate and empathize.

When the switch is off, we see ourselves or others as conditionally valuable. We allow conditions such as past experiences, position, personality or any other difference to influence our perception of a person’s value. When the switch is off, we can’t separate performance from a person’s value, and we can’t have honest conversations about intentions without assuming the worst. Once we decide that someone’s (including our own) value is conditional, our primary motivation is to justify that this belief is true.

When the value switch is turned on, trainers can facilitate learning through these behaviors:

  • Seek first to understand.
  • Listen to and validate feelings without judging.
  • Assume positive intentions.
  • Affirm experiences, even if you can’t relate to them.
  • Empathize by finding common emotional ground.
  • Be vulnerable by sharing your own feelings, motives and experiences.
  • Realize that valuing a person innately that doesn’t necessarily mean you adopt their values or condone their behaviors.

A human resources (HR) professional for a national call center shared how liberating this switch has been for her. She is in charge of inclusion initiatives within her department, yet she holds personal beliefs that don’t always align with the values of the people for whom she is advocating. Recognizing that she can affirm a person’s value without necessarily adopting his or her value system was a breakthrough for her.

This epiphany is common for people with strong value systems. When their value switch begins to dim, they judge a person’s worth based on his or her alignment with their own beliefs. Keeping the switch on helps them honor their own values while allowing others to do the same.

Accenture, a global consulting firm, is a leader in inclusion. Its training managers made this connection: Compassion, particularly the value switch, supports psychological safety, which enables people to bring their full selves to work. Accenture’s training managers believe that psychological safety is the foundation of engagement and innovation. Furthermore, having the value switch on helps trainers separate behavior and content from the person.


Compassion allows us to suspend judgment in place of curiosity.

When the “capability” switch is turned on, we view people as capable of being part of the solution. We believe they have the capacity to learn, grow, solve problems and become more capable over time. As a result, we believe in them, invest in them, look for ways to use their skills and see potential where they might see limitations. We see failure as an opportunity to learn and grow.

When the switch is off, we view capability as limited or stagnant. We see barriers instead of opportunity. We believe myths like, “You’d never understand” or, “You don’t have the proper education to grasp this.” We expect people to prove themselves before we trust them or believe in them. We take failure as a sign to change course or give up.

Bobby Herrera is co-founder and chief executive officer of staffing company Populus Group. With an annual revenue of $500 million and many Fortune 500 customers, it is one of the fastest-growing companies the United States. Herrera recently wrote a book called “The Gift of Struggle,” in which he shares the lessons he’s learned from his struggles. He offers this advice to leaders about capability: “Learn the best way to communicate with every person so you can find ways to stretch their potential without overwhelming them. Challenge people to do more than they believe they are capable of.”

When the switch of capability is turned on, we can suspend judgment in place of curiosity and facilitate learning through these behaviors:

  • Learn about people’s experiences, skills and gifts.
  • Encourage people to share their stories of overcoming obstacles.
  • Approach mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Tell people we believe in them.
  • Ask curious questions, and listen openly to the answer.
  • Ask people to learn more, do more and be more.
  • Explore how differences can be used to the group’s advantage.
  • Test our own assumptions about others by sharing them and asking for feedback.
  • Never withhold information that might help someone become more capable or independent.


Compassion means taking 100% personal responsibility for my own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.

When the “responsibility” switch is on, we accept that regardless of what has happened before, we are each responsible for what happens next. We take complete personal responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors going forward. We focus on how we can take ownership of our part in making things better.

When this responsibility switch is off, we attempt to isolate responsibility, either our own or others’; point fingers; look for excuses; and blame. Nothing works against learning more than playing the blame game.

Turning on the responsibility switch helps trainers share ownership for learning in these ways:

  • Know your own boundaries, and stick to them without apologies or threats.
  • Ask for and make commitments to each other about behaviors going forward.
  • Discern the most critical priorities and use them to guide action.
  • Keep the organization’s mission, vision and values at the center of any learning program.
  • Know the purpose and connect it to any learning initiative.
  • Own up to mistakes, make amends and adjust behavior.

The compassion mindset is a fundamental attitude toward people that transforms how trainers approach their work. It creates a learning environment that is safe, curious and consistent, where people know that they are valuable, capable and responsible.