The New Year has started, literally with a bang from all the fireworks that were set off in my neighborhood. It is a time to ponder the last year and to set goals for improvement for the new. Many people set resolutions such as losing weight or getting more exercise. While these are good goals, what would the world be like if this year we all chose the goal of more loving communication with one another?
My Cultivating Compassion group addressed this topic this month and I would like to share with you some of the suggestions we pondered. Some of these come from a book by Lorne Ladner, Ph.D, The Lost Art of Compassion. He is a Buddhist psychologist who combines his spiritual understanding with solid psychological principles. The other suggestions come from Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s book, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindess. I recommend both books if you are interested in further reading on the subject.
According to Ladner, “three things are necessary for meaningful, powerful positive communication. Through introspection, you must be honest with yourself about your own thoughts and feelings; through empathy, you must be as aware as you can of what the other person feels, thinks and wants; and you must feel a sense of caring or love for the other person.” We first need to think before we speak. While this seems to be a no brainer, many times we just react and say the first thing that comes to our minds. We don’t take the time to be mindful and ask ourselves what is the motivation behind what we say. Do we want attention? Approval? Control?
Rabbi Shapiro encourages us to use Holy Speech. We need to ask ourselves three questions:
- Is it true?
- Is it kind?
- Is it necessary?
Are we saying something that is true? Do we say, “I don’t know” when we really mean “I don’t want to talk about it right now”? Even if it is true, is it kind or beneficial to say? It might be true that the new born baby is the ugliest you have seen in a while but is that a kind comment to share with the mom who is glowing in the bliss of just having given birth to her first newborn? Is it necessary? Is it the right time to say what we see or think? Will the person really be open to hearing our perception or contribution? Is it necessary to add our “two cents worth” at this time? Will it bring the interaction to a more meaningful place? Does it help us to see reality clearer or just confuse the matter? Is it an attempt to bash someone over the head with an insight they are not prepared to hear?
Scientist have found that the key ingredient to healthy relationships is empathy, which is defined as the ability to understand another person’s inner experience. To be empathetic, we must first focus our attention on the other person. So many of us only pay attention to conversations with others with only “one ear.” We are distracted by the newspaper, the TV or other things we are doing at the time. Multi-tasking has no place in empathy. We need to let go of even the worries we are carrying within our minds. We must focus on what the person is saying both with words and non-verbal behavior to really be able to understand what is being felt and said. We need to really look at them and take all of what they are saying in.
There are two types of empathy that have been delineated by scientists: conceptual and resonant. Conceptual empathy is the ability to listen deeply to another person and then relate what we have seen and heard to our memories, ideas, and imagination in order to understand it. For example, someone shares with you the pain and grief she feels with the loss of her mother. Even though you have not lost your mother, you have had losses in your life so you are able to imagine how it must feel for her to loss someone that meant so much to her. It is important to check the accuracy in your understand by reflecting it back to the person. We can never know exactly how someone feels but we can come close with conceptual empathy.
Resonant empathy is wired into our neural hardware. It is our ability as mammals to pick up on the “energy” of the environment. It is automatic and based on survival needs. According to social psychologists “witnessing another’s emotional state prompts the observer to covertly, internally, imitate the other ‘s emotional cues (for example, tensing our muscles when witnessing someone under stress). The result of this process is the production of similar, though weaker, reactions in the observer.” We need to develop our awareness of this process so that we can use it to understand the person and to bring to the situation a more calm interaction. Just as we resonant with another, he too can respond to our calm state and decreased his agitation.
Finally, as we are better able to empathize with a person, we sense a deeper connection and interdependence with each other. We can sense how similar we are to each other and that all beings are connected at some deeper level. We can move to communicated what will be beneficial to all involved rather than just focusing on our own needs. We can begin to communicate with empathy and resolve conflicts from that point of view. Empathic resolution is different from compromise where each person has to give up something in order to reach resolution. With empathy we are more able to transcend our egos and focus on what is good for the whole since we are aware of our connectedness to everyone and everything. Resolution that comes from empathy and love can transcend old conflicts and bring about genuine justice and peace. What a good goal for the New Year in a world that needs as much peace as it can attain, one relationship and neighborhood at a time. “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me!”