Soothing Our Fear

Fear comes in all kinds of forms.  There’s anxiety, dread, scared, panicked, worried, suspicious, and mistrustful.  All of these are different nuances to the one core experience of fear.  Fear is so powerful that subtly it drives a lot of our culture, our social behavior, and our personal decisions about how we live our lives.  Fear can even shape how we see the world if we are unfortunate enough to spend long, regular intervals of feeling fear.  And as you know, fear can at times be really grounded in reality and at other times be completely based in fantasy and projection.

So what are we to do about this multi-faceted, complex, powerful emotion?

First, ask yourself “what is the threat?”  Evolutionarily fear developed to protect us from real tangible threats to our lives.  Now, those threats have become much more amorphous.  So at times we need to really ask ourselves “what is the threat?”  And the answer isn’t always the most obvious answer.  For example, when I feel anxiety because I realized I said something insensitive to a friend, I’ll ask myself “what is the threat?”  The first, obvious answer is “my friend will be mad at me.”  And while that may be true, that isn’t enough of a threat to justify how much anxiety I’m feeling.  So I want to probe deeper.  “And why is that a threat?”  “Well they might say some really hurtful things to me.”  “And why is that a threat?”  “Well…cause maybe then I’ll lose that friend.”

Second, don’t belittle, dismiss, or ignore your fear.  Continuing with my example I started above, if I recognize that the deep threat is that I’ll lose this friend, I may be tempted to then say “well…that’s a pretty small chance.  I should just forget about that.”  And while this approach can produce quick, immediate peace to my anxiety, over time it is this kind of response which makes anxiety bigger.

Remember, fear is our body alerting to us that there’s a potential threat.  If we dismiss that threat, our nervous system doesn’t go “oh, okay, that’s not a threat.”  Instead what it says is “oh shit, he didn’t get the memo!!”  And so either later, or the next time a similar situation arises, my anxiety is going to be even louder and more overwhelming.  Because my nervous system wants me to be safe, and the only way it can ensure that is to make sure I get its messages.

So instead of dismissing your fears, you’ll need to soothe them.  Soothing my fear about losing a friend might look like saying to myself “this is a really important friendship.  And having love and support in my life is really crucial to my survival.  I’m so glad I know how important friendship, and this friend in particular, is to me, and for now I am going to trust that this friend still loves and cares for me.”  Notice how this is different from saying to myself “oh, that’ll never happen.”  When I soothe my fear I acknowledge that the threat is legitimate, and I state what I am going to do about that threat.

So for an example where the threat is more real, let’s say one were scared that they weren’t going to make their mortgage payment.  There can be a real serious threat involved “I might lose the house, and be homeless.”  A soothing statement might be “Being homeless would be really scary.  There is a lot of real danger in living on the streets, and there is a lot of danger in becoming alienated from a most of society.  And while I still have my house, I am going to figure out how to make my mortgage payment.”  The soothing statement treats the threat as real and legitimate, and it states what I am going to do to address that threat.

July 25, 2017Permalink

Boundaries: Essential to Happy Relationships

Boundaries are essential to happy relationships.  That may seem counter-intuitive.  “Aren’t happy couples always spending time together and sharing everything, and doing whatever will make their partner happy?”  No.  In fact, that previous sentence ought to send you screaming to the hills!  For two people to really be happy in a relationship both persons need to know what their boundaries are and be able to clearly communicate them to one another.

The first tricky step is knowing what our boundaries are.  Reflect on your history with someone.  When were you feeling resentful and put out, even though you said yes?  When were you angry with the other person for seemingly “no reason”?  Chances are those were moments where your boundaries were being crossed but in the moment at least you weren’t fully aware of what your boundary was.  And while it may be easy to look back and notice where we weren’t fully aware of our boundaries, the more important skill is to be aware of where our boundaries are in the present.  To do that, I suggest doing two things.

First, before you say yes to a request check in with your body.  Do you feel tight, tense, heavy, or tired?  Then there’s probably some boundary there you need to articulate.  Continue investigating your body.  Are you tense because you’re always saying yes to this particular request, and you just wish this other person would do it themselves for a change?  Are you feeling heavy because you have absolutely no desire to do this favor at all?

Second, really investigate why you want to say yes.  Are you saying yes because you think you should?  Are you telling yourself that a “good/understanding/compassionate/loving partner” would say yes?  If that’s why you’re saying yes, then there’s probably some boundary that’s being crossed and your mind is talking you out of respecting your own boundary.  So what is that boundary?  Are you wanting more consideration and respect?  Are you wanting more rest and ease?

In short, to know what your boundary is, you need to know what it is you want in this particular situation.  It’s both that simple, and that hard.  Often our families of origins or various cultural messages have taught us to devalue what it is that we want.  But that is a recipe for ignoring and even not being aware of what our boundaries are.  And without knowing what our boundaries are we will automatically sacrifice and sacrifice and sacrifice until we’re so resentful we explode.

Now, once you become aware of what your boundaries are, the next tricky step is communicating them clearly and healthfully.  Here’s an unhealthy way to express your boundaries: “God!  You are such an inconsiderate jerk!  You never thank me for helping you out, and you certainly don’t ever ask if I need help!!”  Blaming the other person, labeling them as bad or “a jerk” is not going to help your partner hear the boundary you are trying to establish.  Instead they are going to feel hurt and alienated from you.  And in that condition, they aren’t going to be all that interested in respecting your boundaries.

So to communicate your boundaries in a healthy and direct way you’ll need to share vulnerably.  You’ll need to open up about what emotions you’re feeling and what precious values or needs this boundary is protecting for you.  Something closer to: “I don’t want to clean the kitchen again this week because I feel really sad and invisible when my hard work isn’t acknowledged and appreciated.”

Could that sentence start a fight?  Absolutely.  But communicating our boundaries in a direct and healthy way isn’t about avoiding conflict.  In fact doing this often brings latent conflict up into conscious awareness.  In that example, the conflict over the kitchen and being appreciated for doing that is already present…it just wasn’t being talked about.  Communicating that boundary doesn’t create the conflict; it merely draws the conflict into conscious awareness.  And it’s only when both persons are actively aware of the conflict that a real solution can be found.

 

July 10, 2017Permalink

Forgiving

There is no way to move through the world, in a healthy way, that can completely avoid hurting others or being hurt by others.  Anything short of becoming a hermit or being completely co-dependent means that we will do or say something which will hurt other people’s feelings, and vice versa.  This isn’t permission to go out and just be nasty with people because huts are going to happen anyways.  This is merely a statement of reality.  Despite your best efforts, you already have and will continue to hurt and offend other people.  And despite your best efforts, you already have been and will continue to be hurt and offended by other people.

That’s why, recently when I attended a conference on forgiveness, I thought of this analogy.  Forgiveness is like our body’s capacity to heal.  For people whose bodies don’t naturally heal, for example people with hemophilia, every little cut and scrape is life threatening.  People with such diseases experiences “minor” hurts as, at worst, life threatening, and at best as ongoing, long-term sources of pain and suffering.  Similarly, if you can’t or won’t forgive others then every “minor” hurt lingers in you as a constant sore.  And these “minor” hurts could even become life threatening to the relationship.  Have you ever been just fuming all day because your boss made one critical comment?  Have you ever given your partner the cold shoulder because they forgot to do some favor you asked of them?  Have you ever tried to “get even” with a friend or a partner in a fight?

And what about “major” hurts?  When a partner lies, or a close friend says something hurtful out of spite, or even someone violates your sense of trust in them?  Without a healthy system of forgiveness, your relationship has no chance of survival.

So we need healthy forgiveness to survive.  Our relationships need healthy forgiveness to survive.  So let me be clear what healthy forgiveness is; it is the replacement of negative emotions like resentment, bitterness, defensiveness, contempt, etc with compassionate emotions like sympathy, empathy, or compassion.  Notice that healthy forgiveness does NOT make the hurt okay, it does not absolve you or the other person for responsibility for serious harm done, and it doesn’t suddenly make you okay with the painful action.  Because forgiveness isn’t actually about an action, it is about a relationship.  You don’t forgive a behavior, you forgive a person.

Now, forgiveness can be simple and sometimes it can be very complicated.  Sometimes it can happen very quickly and sometimes it can take a lifetime of work.  There is no simple, easy solution to forgiveness.  But I want to offer you one key tool to help you work on forgiveness: empathy.  For forgiveness to happen you have to empathize with both yourself and the other person.  And this is true no matter whether you are the one who hurt someone or if someone hurt you.

The place to start is to empathize with whoever is hurt, whether that is you or the other person.  Remember, empathy is not about beefing up our inner judgmental, critical narratives of ourselves or others.  Empathy is about genuinely connecting with the feelings underneath our narratives.  Feelings have no judgment or blame.  If you find yourself rehearsing a script of who’s at fault, then you haven’t started self-empathizing yet.

After you have empathized with the one who is hurting, then you have to empathize with the one who committed the hurt.  Remember, every action someone does is in the pursuit of some vital need.  Underneath every hurtful action is some desire that you can empathize with because we all need the same things.

So begin with this exercise.  Write down a moment when you were hurt, or you hurt someone else.  Write it as objectively as you can, just what a video camera would capture, leave out any projection of motive or blame.  Then empathize with the feelings of the one that was hurt, write down the feelings, and connect with that pain.  Then empathize with the person who committed the harm, write down what their needs might have been, and what they were feeling, and emotionally connect with that.  And notice what has shifted in you.

June 26, 2017Permalink

Befriending Our Inner Critic

Most of us have an inner critic.  That’s the voice in your head that says you’re doing it wrong, or even that you’re not enough.  It’s the incessant thoughts about the flaws or mistakes in something you’ve done.  Your inner critic is the internal monologue you have that leaves you feeling less than.

Now many people think the answer is to just get rid of your inner critic.  And this makes some intuitive sense, “if I want to feel more self-acceptance, more self-esteem, and feel more self-love, then I have to stop talking to myself in this way.”  And while there is some truth to that sentence, we cannot simply shut up, or repress, our inner critic.  In fact doing that will only make things worse.

Think of your inner critic like that annoying co-worker, or ex, who just doesn’t have an intuitive sense of healthy boundaries.  The more you ignore their e-mails or texts, the more texts and e-mails they send.  The more you avoid them, the more they pursue you and find opportunities to corner you.  The more you try to brush them off, the more persistent they become.  And as they become more persistent they also become meaner.  That is how your inner critic works too.

So what’s the alternative?  What actually helps reduce and shift your inner critic is to befriend him or her.  And how do you do that?  Empathy and boundaries.

The first step in befriending our inner critic is empathizing with them.  When you have that thought “god, I am so stupid.  Why did I say such a mean thing to my friend?!? I’m an idiot” you need to empathize with the feelings and values in that statement without agreeing to its claims.  So in this example, that might look like “wow, I hear how frustrated and embarrassed I feel.  I also feel really anxious that my friend’s feelings are hurt.  I really value his friendship and the support I get in that relationship.”

Do you see what I did there?  I didn’t agree with the judgment that I’m stupid.  Rather, I empathized with the emotions and values that are in that judgment.  Doing this teaches my inner critic how I like to be talked to because our inner critic really has some important messages for me.  He really wants me to know how much I value this friendship.  I just need to teach him how to communicate that to me so that I can hear it.

After you’ve empathized with your inner critic you then need to set a boundary.  “I hear how scared you are about damaging this friendship; it is a really important source of support.  And putting myself down isn’t going to help.  When I see my friend next time I will apologize, and until then I will let this go.”  Setting an effective boundary means you’ll need to address how you want to do things differently in the future, as well as making it clear that engaging in this vicious self-talk isn’t helping.

So try this on as an exercise:  write down one self-judgment you have.  Underneath that write down all the feelings and values inside that judgment.  See if you can have compassion and empathy for those feelings and values.  Then write down a boundary.  And the next time that self-judgment comes up, say that empathy and boundary to yourself and notice how things begin to change.

June 6, 2017Permalink

When You Don’t Want to Listen…

Sometimes I find that I just don’t want to hear what the other person has to say.  I’m so upset, hurt, or just disconnected that I don’t want to sit and listen.  I just want to fix it and move on.  Or I just want to say my piece and get out.  Can you relate?

I imagine you probably can.  And so what are we supposed to do when that happens?  What can we do to turn it around?

First, if we can’t listen to the other person, then we probably need to listen to ourselves.  Now this doesn’t mean the other person needs to listen to us. And it doesn’t mean we need to work ourselves up with more and more judgmental thoughts.  Instead we need to listen deeply to our own tender feelings and what values of ours are at stake.  In short hand I call this self-empathy.  With self-empathy we shift our attention away from the other person, and we shift our attention away from our thoughts and judgments, and instead we put our attention on our feelings. And to really do this deep listening to ourselves we need to shift into a more accepting attitude.  Instead of saying “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” we want to get to a place where we can say “this is how I feel…and while I don’t like it…it is okay to have this feeling for this moment.”

Listening to ourselves can be hard.  It can be hard because the other person is talking to us, and we can’t focus.  So maybe you need to ask the other person for a brief (3 minute) pause so that you can gather your senses (a.k.a listen to yourself) and respond in a constructive way.  It can be hard to listen to ourselves because we’re afraid of what we might find, or we know what’s there but it’s too painful to sit with.  But I promise you, the more you do this the less scary and the less painful it becomes.  Keeping your feelings locked down makes them scary and more painful to bring up.

Second, after we’ve listened to ourselves, we need to remember that this other person, as a fellow human, deserves respect and dignity.  Often when I don’t want to listen I’m focused on how I am not getting the respect that I deserve.  But if we want have a different kind of interaction, if we want to break the cycle of defensiveness, attack, and hurt, then we need to remind ourselves that this other person also deserve respect and dignity.

There’s lots of way to do that.  One is to repeat to yourself “this person is a human too.”  Another way is to take a moment and notice all the things you and this other person share in common (everything from the surface level: we both have skin, to the deep: we both feel fear.)  Another way is to imagine this person as a small child in pain because that is often what is happening inside of them.  What do you think would help you remember that this other person is a human equally deserving of respect and dignity?

Whatever works for you, use it!  It might feel like you are being asked to give this person a big gift.  And you are.  But there’s only way to break the cycle of indifference, anger, defensiveness, and attack:  compassion.  Compassion for yourself and compassion for the other person.

May 15, 2017Permalink

Recommitment

Sometimes we simply don’t fulfill our promises.  Despite our best efforts and intentions, we fall short of what we said we’re committed to.  Closer readers of my website and blog will notice that I am committed to putting out a new newsletter and blog post every other week…but I haven’t done so since January!

Can you relate?  You promise something, you commit to something, and then life happens.  You commit to going to the gym three times a week, and it goes well for the first month, and then there’s a busy week at work and your gym practice slips off your plate.  Or you make a promise to yourself and others that you’ll stop doing that thing which irritates your friends and family.  And then in just a week later, you’re right back to doing it again.  Or you make a new year’s resolution, and then you get to May and you can barely remember what that resolution was.

The problem is not that you, and I, fail to follow through on our commitments.  The problem is when you give in to shame, despair, and complacency after you’ve noticed that you didn’t follow through.  You see, it’s natural, and inevitable, that we fall short of our commitments.  So the key to growth is the practice of recommitment.

Recommitting to a promise, resolution, or goal requires us to be honest when we’ve fallen short.  It requires compassion and empathy with ourselves, to acknowledge that we’re fallible and aren’t going to do it perfectly.  And it requires discernment in finding a new path forward.

Recommitting takes courage, and it builds character, because it requires honesty.  Honesty with ourselves and others that we really do have a promise or a goal that we want to work towards, that we dropped the ball, and that we still want to work towards that goal.

But we won’t recommit if we’re drowning in shame and defeatism.  If we tell ourselves “well, here’s just another reason why I’m not a good person.”  Or if we say “well, I failed again to make it to the gym, I should just give up.”  Then we will never reach our goal.  We reach out goal not by putting more and more pressure on ourselves to “stay committed.”  We reach out goal by compassionately helping ourselves get back on the path.

Finally, sometimes when we recommit we need to look at why we dropped the ball in the first place.  Was there a trigger, a new set of circumstances in our life, a particular stressor, or something else that caused us to break our commitment?  Was our commitment set too high to begin with?  Notice, on my website that now in my recommitting to writing blog posts and putting out newsletters that I am no longer doing every other week, but simply twice a month.  Sometimes to recommit, we need to tweak our plan so it becomes more doable.

May 1, 2017Permalink

Deconstructing Enemy Images

We are living in a time when a lot of our public, and thus our private, language projects the image of “enemy” onto other people.  This is happening on all sides of the political aisle.  Projecting an enemy image onto another human is the act of making them not only an other, but also bad and a threat.

An “enemy image” is when we see our co-worker as “lazy” or “a jerk.”  When we see people of a different political persuasion from our own as “selfish,” “ignorant,” or “out to ruin our country/democracy.”  Or when we see people of a different race or religion as “bad” or “potential terrorists.”  These are all enemy images.

Projecting an enemy image onto another human immediately shuts down relationship and connection.  That enemy image in our head makes us scared of the other, or angry at the other, and we lose touch with our natural desire for relationship.  Instead we desire them to just be gone.  This breakdown in relationship can do real harm.

Perhaps the most damaging thing about viewing others as enemies is that it cuts you off from your own capacity for compassion.  If we view others as enemies, then when those same habits and flaws appear in ourselves, or a loved one, we are likely to see ourselves or those closest to us as enemies as well.  Turning off compassion in one part of your life affects all the other parts of your life too.

So let me talk about four ways we fall into the trap of projecting an enemy image onto the other, and ways to get out of those traps.

First, we generalize and universalize.  “My husband never thinks about anyone but himself.”  “My co-worker has never finishes a project on time.”  “Donald Trump has absolutely no empathy.”  These generalizations help us turn the person into a static object which we can hate.  The remedy to this is to think of and talk about a specific, concrete instance.  “When I got home my husband hadn’t cleaned the kitchen, and I found him in the back watching a movie.”  “Last week, my co-worker finished a project two weeks after I was expecting it to be finished.”  “Donald Trump signed an executive order banning citizens of seven countries from entering the U.S.”

Second, we avoid our feelings and fixate on our thinking.  Our thoughts are constantly constructing a narrative of meaning around those specific, concrete instances.  And we are likely to project an enemy image onto the other when we buy into those narratives rather than paying attention to our feelings and needs.  So we need to redirect our attention to our emotional experience.  “I felt really angry, hurt, and sad when I came home to the messy kitchen because I really just want some support and partnership.”  “I felt really anxious because I wanted to be efficient at work.”  “I feel really angry and scared because I want to live in a nation where there is acceptance and understanding.”

Third, we label what the other person has done as bad rather than seeking out what good value was driving their behavior.  It is easy to see someone make a mistake and sit back as an armchair coach pointing out their flaws and how wrongheaded they were.  It takes real work to try and understand what good value is motivating the others’ behavior.  “I know my husband experiences a lot of stress at work, and when he gets home he really is looking for rest and relaxation.”  “My co-worker maybe feeling anxious because she really wants my approval for her work and that’s why she spends so much time working on it.”  “Donald Trump maybe feels proud and glad because in his mind he thinks he is helping people feel safer.”

Finally, we make it a precondition that the other must change before we can work with them.  But if we refuse to engage with the other until they have changed, then instead of having rich relationships we’ll have disconnection and isolation.  We need to start with working with others just as they are with the needs and values they already have.  “I want to spend some time relaxing with my husband, and then we can clean up the kitchen together.”  “I want to tell my co-worker how much I appreciate their work, and see if there is a way we can get the work done sooner.”  “I want to create a space where people of different races and religions can meet and talk to one another, so people can feel safe without having to exclude the other.”

January 30, 2017Permalink

Time for Rest

You don’t have infinite energy.  But it is tempting to pretend like you do.

Especially during the hecticness of the holidays, with so much going on, so much to do, and cultural and family expectations to live up to, it is tempting to pretend that we can do it all.  We make long to-do lists.  We consume large amounts of caffeine and sugar to keep us working.  And then we beat ourselves up when we aren’t able to check everything off the list.

It is vital to your health, and your communication, to take time to rest.  I know this is hard to do this time of year, and that is precisely why it is so important to do this at this time of year.  When we rest we are able to recharge.  When we rest we are able to process all that we’ve done.  When we rest we have more energy to tackle the large to-do list.

So how can you tell that you’re over extended and need some rest?

For some people a warning sign is when their inner critic starts acting up.  When we’re tired and run down our inner critic is louder and harsher.  For others, it is might be constant lethargy.  Nothing seems exciting, just another thing “to-do.”  It takes more and more energy just to get out of bed.  And for still others, it is less patience and more judgment of others.  Other people are dropping the ball, getting in your way, and being general nuisances.

What is your tell-tale sign that you are in need of rest?  Do you know?

How do the friends, co-workers, and family members tell you that you seem overworked?  Do they?  How could you receive their feedback with less defensiveness?

And then what helps you actually rest?

For some it’s reading and taking a bubble bath.  For others it’s spending time in nature, whether taking a walk in the local park or taking a drive to the beach.  For others it is watching movies.  For others it is working on crafts.

What activities give you rest?

Rest is different from sleep.  While sleep is essential to being well rested, rest involves so much more than just sleep.  Rest involves play, relaxation, fun, peace and equanimity.  What kinds of activities give you those feelings?

Finally, what do you do to prioritize rest?

Rest is not a one-time thing.  Rest is a regular practice.  If we view rest as something we do only when we’re burned out, then we’re set for a cycle of burn out.  Rest needs to be integrated into your life.

For some people they schedule a day, or at least an afternoon, every week to rest.  Others look at the yearly calendar and note when throughout the year they need to get away, or reduce their workload, to recuperate after a stressful period.  And still others prefer a more spontaneous way of engaging in rest, but they still keep a watch on when they need that rest.

Rest is not laziness.  Rest is essential for a healthy mental and emotional life.  Rest is essential for consistent productivity.  Rest is essential to joy and living through life rather than working through life.

December 19, 2016Permalink

A Time for Healing

The election is over.

It was a long and bitter primary season and then election season.  On all sides there were angry and divisive attacks and accusations made.  And now living in the aftermath of a Trump’s election there are many seeds that could further the fractured and divided state of our nation.

Now is a time for healing.

Please, bring all that you’ve learned about Compassionate Communication into your political dialogues in the weeks and months ahead.  Remember that debating thoughts, interpretations, and evaluations always leads to debates over who is right or wrong.  And since no one wants to be wrong, whenever any of us perceive ourselves as being accused of being wrong we are likely to dig in our heals and become more entrenched in our opinions and thoughts, not less.  Debating our thoughts and opinions will not bring us together, but sharing our feelings is what naturally draws people into relationship with one another.

Remember that all actions are in pursuit of meeting basic human needs.  Voting for Hillary or voting for Trump were actions that were taken to fulfill common needs we have for safety, security, peace, growth, change, and help.  Don’t portray anyone’s actions as purely evil because they aren’t.  Everything humans do is in the pursuit of common human needs.

Remember that empathy is essential to creating the safety required to for people to be honest about the feelings and needs that drove their actions.  This primary and election seasons are the fruit of a country that is already divided and fragmented.  Moving towards more fragmentation and division will not end these kinds of elections; it will only create more elections such as this one.  In their election choices, people are expressing real and true pain in their lives; we need to listen to that expressed pain with empathy to build compassion and relationships.

And yet, we also must speak up about our own pain when we see injustice.  But don’t let your pain lead you into blaming others.  Expressing our pain directly is powerful.  “I am afraid because I want to live in a country where people are treated with compassion” is a much more powerful statement than “You are a ___.”

Now is a time for healing.

We cannot change what has happened.  But let us use what has happened to begin the process of building bridges and relationships with those we normally cast into enemy images.  The way out of this mess is compassion and empathy, vulnerability and intimacy.  We cannot end division by blaming and name calling; those are the very seeds of division.  And yet, authentic healing cannot happen without honesty about the pain we are experiencing.  So speak up about your pain, but do it with vulnerability that shares your authentic humanity.  Confront those who are expressing opinions and views that you’re afraid of, but do so with compassionate and empathetic curiosity about what pain this other person is in that they have such thoughts and views.

Now is a time for healing.

November 21, 2016Permalink

Empathy: What Brings Us Together

If you’re wondering why the world seems to be tearing itself apart, the answer is simple: lack of empathy.

Empathy is the art of experiencing the feelings and the worldview of another as if it were your own, without losing that “as if” quality.  Empathy is when your friend is angry at their boss and you can stand with them in their anger, and feel it with them, without trying to fix it or give advice.  Empathy is when your spouse says something hurtful, and instead of getting angry at them, you understand and can feel the fear and sadness behind their anger.  Empathy is when you encounter someone supporting a political candidate you detest, and instead of judging them, you stand in their shoes and experience their anger, fear, anxieties, and worries such that you see their full humanity.

Empathy is the art of recognizing and experiencing the full humanity of the other.  

When we perceive others as opposed to our own beliefs, desires, or needs we quickly construct an enemy image out of them.  “My friend is such an ungrateful employee.”  “My spouse is inconsiderate and doesn’t love me.”  “That person wants to elect a monster to president; they must have no morals and no empathy for anyone else!”  Our enemy images of the other reduce their identity to one negative aspect.

So how do we engage in this art of empathy? 

I’ll give two pieces of advice: stop thinking & start feeling, and ask introspective questions.

Stop thinking about all the ways this person is wrong.  To stop, you first have to notice and label your thoughts as just that, thoughts.  Take a deep breath, “I know I’m judging my friend as whining and ungrateful”…”I’m telling myself a story that my partner doesn’t love me”…”I’m labeling this person as an idiot and heartless because of the candidate they’re supporting.”

Awareness is always the first step.  And once we become aware of the judgments in our own head, we need to shift into feeling.  Feeling works completely differently from thinking.  Thinking is competitive; it seeks out truth and false, right and wrong.  Feeling is mutual; it seeks out what is going on in me, and what is going on in them.

For small situations maybe we just need to start feeling into their world: “Okay, so if I don’t judge my friend as whiny, what might they be feeling? Maybe angry because she doesn’t feel respected or recognized by her boss.  Maybe sad because she wants a healthier work environment.”  But for bigger situations we might have to begin by feeling into our world first, and then theirs: “Wow, I feel really scared and terrified of their candidate.  I’m really scared that my quality of life and the quality of life of my fellow citizens will suffer under their presidency.  I wonder if they feel that same fear about the candidate I support.”

And here is where my second piece of advice comes in: ask introspective questions.  If you’ve made the shift from thinking to feeling, and you have some guesses as to what might be going on inside the other person, don’t presume you’ve got them figured out.  Ask them!  Ask “are you feeling hopeless because you want a better work environment, but don’t know how to get it?”  Ask “did you say that to me because you’re angry and hurt and you want me to see that I’ve let you down in some way?”  Ask “are you supporting that candidate because you really want to feel safe, and the thought of the other candidate getting elected cause you fear?”  Don’t presume you have the other person figured out and proceed to give advice.  Seek to make sure you understand, and the only person who can tell you if you do understand them is that person themselves.

If we practice the art of empathy, then we don’t have to resort to judging and labeling others as bad.  If we practice the art of empathy, we can build bonds of trust and respect across lines of difference.

If we practice the art of empathy, we heal even the deepest wounds and divisions. 

October 24, 2016Permalink
Free Practice Group

Twice a month I lead a free Compassionate Communication Practice Group. Open to those new and advanced students. We meet on the First and Third Monday of the month at 6 pm. We gather at 640 Hawthorn Lane in classroom 8. Classrooms are behind the church and to the left, next to the parking lot. Practice Group sessions usually run for 2 hours.

The next one will be on July 6th at 6 pm.