Blog post

Embedding compassion­ate communica­tion with students

How can bringing compassion into the classroom help to improve group dynamics? Dr Caroline Harvey and Dr Frances Maratos at the University of Derby have been researching the benefits of compassionate communication with undergraduate students. Here, they explain their findings and explore the impact of the pandemic on group working.  

By Dr Caroline Harvey - 3 March 2021

Being able to work as part of a team is a skill that is highly valued in society. Children work in groups in school; at university, students regularly work on group assessments; and in the workplace, being able to work as part of a team goes without saying.

So, why do many people find working as part of a team challenging?

There are many reasons why teams might experience difficulties. Research has shown that issues such as communication problems, personal feelings about other group members and levels of participation in tasks may all lead to negative perceptions about group work (Smith et al., 2011). One key thing that can help improve group functioning is communication. Specifically, developing ‘micro skills of compassionate communication’ (MSCC) is a key emerging approach, providing solutions to enhance group performance.

How can we teach students compassionate communication skills?

As part of an applied research project, we have been developing an approach to teach students how to use compassionate communication skills. This involves students understanding the importance of taking a compassionate approach towards all group members – including themselves. Compassion is about noticing distress or disadvantage in the self and/or others and, importantly, doing something to address this. In a group setting this might involve noticing that another student is disadvantaged by not engaging in a conversation. Utilising MSCC, it is the responsibility of the group to do something about this – for example, to encourage the quiet student to feel included and to contribute if they feel able too.

As students learn more about compassionate communication skills, a further focus is on identifying helpful and unhelpful group behaviours. Helpful behaviours might include things like listening attentively and not interrupting, asking others for their opinions, engaging eye contact with all group members, using body language to show that they are open to others; and, taking action if they notice any unhelpful behaviours.

Students also learn to recognise unhelpful group behaviours, things such as ‘monopolising’ the conversation, either as an individual or with another person in the group, interrupting when someone else is speaking, or using dominant body language to signify superiority over other group members.

Through practical sessions students become more aware of their own behaviour as part of a team and learn how to address unhelpful group behaviours when they occur – either their own unhelpful behaviours, or that of others in the team. Because all the group members are aware of the compassionate approach taken, this occurs in a supportive environment where students feel able to develop their own compassionate communication skills further. We are now adapting our teaching to the online learning environment, to encourage students to develop their communication skills during group work in the online classroom.

children's hands and feet in a team circle

What impact does compassion have on group settings? 

To find out what impact this has been having, we have been evaluating the impact of introducing MSCC and the initial findings are very positive. Our research has included focus groups conducted with: i) staff responsible for delivering this approach in their classes; and ii) the students learning how to use compassionate communication skills.  

In these focus groups, the students and staff were asked a number of questions by the researchers to help them understand more about how the approach had helped students to work and communicate more effectively in a group. The students and staff were able to identify a number of ways in which they had found the compassionate communication training helpful. The focus groups identified four areas of importance:   

Addressing unhelpful group behaviours 

Students were able to address unhelpful group behaviours when they occurred. This is important as it means that the approach helped to provide students with skills and confidence to be able to do something when they noticed an unhelpful behaviour occurring.  

Using helpful group behaviours 

Students were more aware of the helpful group behaviours and could make more use of these themselves to improve the overall group functioning.  Both staff and students noticed how they had been able to use these new skills in other settings both within and outside of the University.  

Inclusivity enhanced 

Inclusivity was enhanced where students felt more able to join in group discussions. It was also noted that the shyer students seemed to particularly benefit from this approach and were more able to join in group discussions as a result.   

Providing resources to help with compassion 

Both staff and students suggested ways in which the approach could be delivered and, as a result, a series of videos have been produced which provide examples of helpful and unhelpful group behaviours, and how to address these. These will be used in teaching again this year and are also being shared with colleagues nationally and internationally interested in using this approach. A link to one of these videos is provided at the end of this blog.  

Impact of Covid-19 on team working 

The big challenge we face now is how to adapt this approach to the blended delivery taking place due to the pandemic restrictions. We are working with colleagues to ensure that students can develop compassionate communications skills not only during their face-to-face sessions on campus, but also when being taught/engaging in seminars/discussion remotely via online group platforms. Indeed, adopting a compassionate communication style is, as students have noted, beneficial in all aspects of their life.  

We are working to ensure that students feel confident in some of the basic communication skills required in an online setting, such as exploring the impact on group dynamics that using the camera and microphone can have, as well as using group chat areas. We recognise that many people will find communicating in an online environment daunting, as we have all had to cope with many changes to our usual way of life.

For students just embarking on their undergraduate degree programme, this can be particularly challenging as many of them have not yet met with all the students they are studying with in a face-to-face situation. We start by supporting the students to develop rapport with their peers in the online classroom and move on to focus on their communication skills specifically in relation to the online environment. This will not only be important to them personally, but they will be able to take these skills with them as they move on to employment in the future, as we know that the ability to communicate appropriately is highly valued by employers.  

If you are interested in reading more about this work, we have recently published an article about our applied work to date: 

Harvey, C., Maratos, F.A, Montague, J, Gale, M., Clarke, K & Gilbert, T. (2020) Embedding Compassionate Micro Skills of Communication in Higher Education: implementation with psychology undergraduates. Psychology of Education Review, 44 (2), 68-72 

Embedding Compassionate Micro Skills of Communication in Higher Education: implementation with psychology undergraduates 

You can also view an example of one of the videos which exemplifies one of the unhelpful group behaviours – monopolising discussions.

Finally, for more information about this work, or to request copies of the other videos, please contact Dr Harvey by email 

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About the author

Dr Caroline Harvey

Dr Caroline Harvey
Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Caroline teaches a range of undergraduate and postgraduate modules on our Psychology programmes. She supervises PhD students and is an active researcher. Caroline's research is focused on two broad areas and she leads on research concerning compassion in higher education and also works as part of a team that are interested in the links between nature and wellbeing.

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