Tune Into Others
- Tune Into Others
On June 30, 2011, in Family | Social, Featured,
Highly Accessed, Psychology, submitted by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
What Are They Feeling?
Tune into others.
Imagine a world in which people interacted with
each other like ants or fish. Imagine a day at
work like this, or in your family, aware of the
surface behavior of the people around you but
oblivious to their inner life while they remain unmoved by your own.
Thats a world without empathy. To me, it sounds like a horror film.
Without empathy, there can be no real love,
compassion, kindness, or friendship. Empathic
breakdowns shake the foundation of a
relationship; just recall a time you felt
misunderstood or even worse, a time when the
other person could care less about understanding
you. In particular, anyone who is vulnerable
(e.g., children, the elderly) has a profound need
for empathy, and when its a thin soup or missing
altogether, thats very disturbing. In my
experience as a therapist, poor empathy is the
core problem in most troubled couples or
families; without it, nothing good is likely to
happen; with it, even the toughest issues can be resolved.
Empathy gives you a feeling for what its like to
be another person. When you are empathic, even
quietly and tacitly, that tells the other person
that he or she exists for you as a being, as a
Thou to your I. Thats usually what people most
want to know; its more fundamental than whatever topic is on the table.
Empathy is soothing, calming, bridge-building;
when its present, its much easier to work
through things. Empathy gives you lots of useful
information, like whats most important to others
or whats really bothering them.
This week, repeatedly tune into the interior of
the people around you; empathy moments often take just a few seconds.
To help yourself, remember that empathy is not
agreement or approval. You can tune into someone
who hurt you or is irritating; youre not waiving
your rights! Nor do you have to solve the other persons problem.
Also know that empathy is completely natural. As
we evolved, the brain developed three circuits
(loosely defined) for empathy that simulate the
actions, emotions, and thoughts of others. For
example, when you experience an emotion, a part
of your brain called the insula lights up;
remarkably, when you see emotions in others, some
of the same neurons in your insula activate as
well. The result is you get a taste of what
theyre feeling. You were born empathic.
Start by centering yourself so you dont feel
overwhelmed; studies have found that,
paradoxically, a little feeling of detachment
actually promotes empathy; as Robert Frost wrote,
fences make for good neighbors. Then open up to
other people, letting their inner life flow
through you like wind through the leaves of a deeply rooted tree.
Tune into their breathing, posture, gestures,
actions. Imagine what it would feel like to move
your own body in the same ways.
Tune into their emotions, particularly the softer
ones underneath verbal positions or anger. Watch
the eyes closely; human eyes are the most
expressive of any species on our planet. Open up
to your own gut feelings, which could be
resonating with those of other people. Ask
yourself what you would be feeling if you were them.
Tune into their thoughts, memories, expectations,
needs, and intentions. Form little hypotheses in
your mind about what could be going on over
there. Take into account what you know about
their personal history including with you and
their temperament, priorities, hot buttons. Be
curious and look beneath the surface.
As appropriate, check out your empathic
intuitions. Ask simple questions, like: Were you
feeling ____ ? Did you want ____ ? Did you feel
pulled between ____ and ____ ? Be respectful, not
persuasive or prosecutorial. Dont muddle empathy
with asserting your own views or needs; do that part later.
Stay with it. Empathy is a kind of mindfulness
practice, sustaining attention this time to someone elses inner world.
And when its your turn to receive empathy,
youll know better what it is you are asking for.
The best way to get empathy is to give it.
* * *
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and
founder of the Wellspring Institute for
Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. His work
has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer
Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and
Huffington Post, and he is the author of the
best-selling Buddhas Brain: The Practical
Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. He
writes a weekly newsletter Just One Thing
that suggests a simple practice each week that
will bring you more joy, more fulfilling
relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.
If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.
Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.
Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.Marcus Aurelius
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