Learning Resources

A Taxonomy of Compassion

Working at the inter-relation of own and others’ emotions


Relating to feelings and perspectives of others

Manifesting deep understanding of self and others



Demonstrating concern for, and interest in others

Showing modesty, recognising equality of all people


Behaving and communicating politely, with respect

A taxonomy of compassion

This model is intended to be adopted and amended by anyone who wishes to use it.

It does not present a definition of compassion from either an etymological or a peer reviewed empirically evidenced position; rather it was created after many years of working in school based, university and healthcare education systems, and as a result of talking to many thousands of practitioners across medicine, education, social work, criminal justice and allied healthcare professions.

Compassion is a contested word; its true meaning suggests suffering alongside someone, whereas some of us may choose to see it in its modern day use as a broader concept more akin to Unconditional Positive Regard (see here for a story about UPR.)

This model looks like a hierarchy and is to a degree layered to present the somewhat constructive nature of the behaviours, emotions and thoughts that contribute to compassionate practice in the workplace. Many users of this model will be working in care, others will be involved in education, yet others will be working with the public in a supportive way. The model is open to re arrangement – its primary objective is to stimulate thinking and encourage discourse so that we can come to greater understandings of the ways in which compassion contributes to what we do. There will always be debates about what should be there, and what should be at the top or bottom of the pyramid, and this is the express intention of sharing the model – without debate we cannot come to a collective understanding in our own communities of practice.

The model may work better for some as an iceberg* with the three lower elements being the visible, observable behaviours and the higher three being the underpinning disciplines of mind which support congruent, genuine compassion in practice. (*see below.)

The reason why this is presented as a taxonomy in a loosely hierarchical model is that we believe the elements included do build on one another. If we behave with civility it can be easier to develop humility – treating people with respect can lead us to believe that we are in fact all equally important in this world. Believing we are equal can lead us to show more interest in others and therefore to be kinder to them. When we take an interest in others we can develop a deeper understanding not just of them, but of ourselves too as we learn more about others. That insight can lead us to therefore relate to our feelings and perspectives in relation to those of others with whom we come into contact. When we practise this empathy we can develop a greater reflexivity, a complex and yet vital component of true compassion. Being aware of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours with respect to those around us and how we affect them and they affect us can lead to far greater connection. It transforms our relationships from transactional to transformational which can have far reaching positive consequences for all of us.

Compassion is not just something we give out, like gifts at Christmas. If it is practised as an essential constituent of all that we do, it can lead to rewards not just for our patients, learners, service users and stakeholders. It can transform the world while we are living in it.