Compassion needs practice of three other foundational skills

We can’t be compassionate if we are not generous, empathetic and self-aware. To understand another person’s pain, we need to be generous with our time dedicated to build empathy for the other one. We need to be willing to observe him in his daily routine. Who are the people he meets? What kind of relationships he has with others? What kind of tasks he does?

When the observation is done, we need to be able to understand and feel as the other person does.

Each day is an opportunity to gain a deeper level of compassion. How willing are we to create the mental space to do it?

Neuroscience helps us understand that when we are engaged in cognitive tasks, a circuitry on the lateral parts of the brain gets activated. At the same time, the brain networks that are in the middle areas and are related to self-awareness and empathy get deactivated. Therefore, we would need a strong determination to spend some time away from cognitive problem-solving and use that time instead on purposeful compassion practices. What might that motivation be?

But please let us not say, “I feel you”, unless we feel it to be true. If we say it because we want to save the appearance of an emotionally intelligent dialogue, we only make things worse. The other person will feel we’re not feeling him, become more distant and still be in pain.

 

 

How to create mental space for empathy when getting irritated

Being empathetic and looking at a particular situation from someone else’s perspective can help us decrease conflicts and give and receive feedback more effectively. But when you’re seeing red, it’s harder to shift gears and be motivated to think about what someone else might be thinking. 

To allow ourselves to look at potential conflicts through the lens of empathy, I’ve found four strategies of self-awareness: 1) don’t trust your first emotional reactions; 2) question your interpretations; 3) your standards of behaviour are different than others’; 4) appeal to humour to laugh at yourself.

It was a beautiful Summer afternoon when my husband and I were in the car, driving around to do some errands. In the following second, we could see a biker stopping in the middle of the road and starting a talk with the driver in the car in front. It was a narrow street. In addition, some cars were parked on one side, thus making it impossible to overtake. We had to stop the car, watching two strangers having a good time talking.

“Outrageous!” my sense of righteousness got activated. Our car seemed to have been invisible to the two men.

Moments of potential conflict like this are good opportunities to practice empathy. The problem is that there is little room for perspective-taking when the brain is loaded with the unconscious interpretation of the situation and overwhelmed by negative emotional reactions.

A tiny spark of awareness shone light on the feeling of fury for what was perceived to be unacceptable behaviour. A shy voice whispered, “How about your commitment to empathy?”. A choice had to be made.

To honk?

To shout at them to get out of the way?

To make a neutral observation about the fact that the two individuals were blocking the traffic?

To wait quietly?

To get out of the car and ask if I can help them in any way?

To get out of the car, join them and crack a joke about the situation?

As my husband and I were debating which course of action to take, the biker and the driver continued on their separate ways, freeing the road.

Had the conversation lasted longer than it did, my commitment to empathy would have probably been overridden. The impulse of teaching the two strangers a lesson of politeness would have been too strong to control. Most certainly, I would have honked.

Thanks to this incident, I could experience how self-awareness and emotional control are prerequisites for perspective-taking. To be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, first you may want to sort out the emotional reaction engendered by how you yourself see the situation. Here are four strategies of how to do that:

  1. Be aware of the anger, anxiety or irritation you may feel. Stay present with those feelings but try not to trust them too much. What is it about you that makes you react the way you do? In this story, the expectation that traffic rules must be observed was not met. Anger is one way to react. What would another person you have high regard of do in a similar situation?
  2. Behind any emotional reaction, there is an unconscious interpretation of a particular context and we quickly jump to conclusions. Try not to take for granted those conclusions, i.e., two men are intentionally messing up the traffic. There are many assumptions involved in the interpretation, which may not reflect the true story. Maybe the two strangers were discussing an urgent topic. Maybe they hadn’t seen each other in a long time and were thrilled to meet by chance, on the road. Who knows what drove them to have the particular behaviour?
  3. Your sense of respecting rules is different than others’. Assuming the interpretation of the situation is right to begin with and we had crossed ways with two inconsiderate human beings. Would any outbursts help them change their ways of behaving? It would be like shouting at a mosquito that its bites cause an itchy sensation and irritate the skin and expect it’s not going to bite you or someone else next time.
  4. Humour can be a great saviour. You may reframe your interpretation and emotional reactions in a way that makes you laugh at yourself. Laughter enables the limbic system of your brain cool down faster.


The biker had a content face as he was biking one meter distance from our car. He didn’t look our way. Let’s face it. Sometimes you just can’t understand why others do what they do. Wish them well and hold onto your commitment to practice empathy.