There was a period in my life when I was working full-time as an engineer while studying and working at home. My day looked something like this: wake and eat, go to work for 10-11 hours, do Krav Maga training, come home, repeat. I was commuting one and a half hours each way and my sleep was suffering. The details of my escapades are not important though. What’s important is how I interacted with my brother when I got home, and whether I established compassion through empathy.
Regularly (a dangerous word to use) I would come home and see my brother sitting in front of the computer on Facebook. (When you walk in the front door at my parent’s house, you can see what someone’s doing in the office.) At 9 or 10 o’clock at night I’m tired, beat and my can of willpower is completely empty. Seeing my brother on Facebook unleashed some Jackals within. (Jackals are the judgements, criticisms and evaluations we make in our heads.)
- “What a layabout! I wish I could just sit at home all day and surf the web!”
- “Why doesn’t he get up off his arse and do something of value for a change?”
Those are a few examples. What was the result of this kind of thinking? If you guessed “not positive”, you’d be right. I never explicitly said any of these things to my brother, but they sure did come across in the way I communicated with him. The way I spoke and acted for the next 10-15 minutes before I went to bed was not very conducive to a healthy relationship.
In hindsight, the judgements and evaluations going on in my head are a blessing. They don’t tell me anything about Aden – they speak to what I’m needing right now. When I complain that he’s “a layabout”, what I really mean is that I’m feeling tired and am in need of some rest. Questioning why he doesn’t “get up off his arse” is an expression of my own need for contribution, but also to nurture my younger brother.
It’s all well and good for me to say that these Jackals are a good reminder of what I’m needing at this moment. The problem is actually applying this strategy in real time, and not letting the judging and criticising thoughts affect your behaviour and interaction with the other person, blocking compassion.
It’s hard to give empathy without first getting it
Another method for dealing with this internal dialogue is to provide empathy for the other person – whether silently or verbally. When I can empathise with the feelings and needs of my brother (even if it’s just in my head), I find all objections, frustrations and anger melts away. The problem is that it’s very difficult to receive someone with empathy when you are needing it yourself.
If I’m really upset about something, there’s not much chance I’m going to be able to empathise with the other person before my own needs are heard – particularly if the other person is the stimulus for my feelings!
Notice I said, “before my own needs are heard”? Most of the time, I don’t need advice or brainstorming about actions to take. I just want someone to truly hear what’s going on with me at the moment.
So, here’s the scenario. You’re in a conversation with someone that is quite emotionally charged. Both parties don’t have their needs met and have some pretty intense feelings. With respect to empathy, I see two options.
Option 1: Give yourself empathy.
You can do this by taking a moment, perhaps saying something like: “Hey hey hey! This is all feeling very intense and frustrating to me. I’d like to take 5 minutes to step outside and collect myself.”
When you’re outside, you can hear your own feelings and needs (potentially hiding behind Jackal language) and then return to the dialogue ready to hear the other person.
Option 2: Give them empathy.
This one takes considerably more courage in my opinion, as you have to briefly empty yourself of emotions. I want to stress that this is brief and I’m not encouraging repressing emotions. In order to hear someone fully, I need to be empty of my own preconceived ideas and emotions. Once I feel they have been heard around their pain, I can check to see if they’re willing to receive mine.
When we connect with the needs behind our judgements and feelings, I find that conflicts tend to be resolved much easier.
Conflict resolution and mediation is a tricky subject – something I plan on writing more about in the future. There’s such value to be had for our close personal relationships, as well as in business dealings and negotiations.
If I listen right now, I don’t hear any judgements and criticisms internally about my brother. I’m glad because we’re about to play together in a Quidditch tournament this weekend.