Saturday, January 14, 2017

What to Do When You Feel Stuck in Negative Emotions

By Kira M. Newman

According to a new book, the key is “emotional agility”: being less rigid and more flexible with our thoughts and feelings.

We’ve all been there: A strong emotion like anger or fear sucks us in and suddenly we can’t seem to control the things we say or do, hurting ourselves and those around us.
“We act like wind-up toys, repeatedly bumping into the same walls, never realizing there may be an open door just to our left or our right,” writes Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, in Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.
Her book is a guide to life’s trickiest emotions: not how to avoid them but how to learn to move through them. If we have the courage to do this, she argues, we will cultivate deeper relationships and a more authentic life.
When we get stuck—i.e., held in thrall of a particularly nasty feeling—there are a few common culprits, writes David.
  • Monkey mind: We’ve spiraled off into a cascade of regret about the past, worry about the future, or judgments about ourselves.
  • Old ideas: We’re repeating old thoughts and behaviors that no longer fit the current reality, like “I always choke in important situations” or “I’m not good enough for him.” 
  • Righteousness: Our need to be right leads to conflict with others, rather than forgiveness and understanding. 
  • Blaming thoughts for behaviors: Because we think certain things—“I always choke”—we feel compelled to take certain actions, like avoiding public speaking. We fail to recognize that we could choose a different path.
The way we cope with negative feelings often serves to keep us stuck. Some of us bottle our emotions, trying to ignore them and soldier on. In the process, we end up stressing out the people around us and may find those feelings “leaking out” in other ways: anger at a cashier, for example, when our real anger is directed toward someone else.
In contrast to bottlers, brooders rehash feelings over and over in their heads, not generating productive insights but simply reliving the pain. Brooders can become very self-focused, writes David, and they may start to judge and blame themselves for their feelings.
Finally, sometimes inspired by the self-help industry, many of us respond to negative emotions by forcing ourselves to be positive. “This isn’t such a big deal,” we might tell ourselves, or “I should feel grateful for everything I have.” Yet trying to reason away our negative emotions and feel good all the time can be detrimental to our mental health.
David calls these unhealthy responses being “hooked.” The feelings have snagged us, in one way or another: We aren’t aware of them yet they’re influencing our behavior; we’re completely drowning in them; or we’re constantly fighting them off in order to stay chipper. 

How to cultivate emotional agility

To get unhooked, we first have to acknowledge the hook—in other words, to be mindful and accepting of our feelings, David explains. In one study, for example, researchers found that smokers were more successful at quitting after participating in a program based on accepting, observing, and detaching from their cravings.
Other research shows that people with alexithymia—who cannot put their feelings into words—have poorer mental health, less satisfying jobs and relationships, and more aches and pains. And naming your feelings isn’t as simple as saying “I’m stressed,” explains David; often, underlying such generic feelings are more uncomfortable emotions like frustration or hopelessness.
The point of identifying these feelings is not to beat ourselves up, though. In fact, if we want to make improvements in the future, the best approach is self-compassion. With the clarity it brings, we can try to understand what the feelings are telling us—what we can learn about our desires, boundaries, or needs.
David recounts a time when she was traveling for work and, alone in a fancy hotel room, began to feel guilty for leaving her family. Rather than getting hooked by the guilt and smothering her feelings with five-star room service, she instead chose to pause and learn from it: to remind herself how much she values time with her loved ones, and to recommit to prioritizing them. 

Instead, David might have tried to brush aside the guilt and smother it with five-star room service. But she was able to pause and step back from her feelings. One way to get some perspective on a difficult feeling is to use language—to say, “I’m having the thought that…I’m a bad mother” or “I’m having the emotion of…shame.” In one coaching exercise, David invites a group of participants to write their deepest insecurities on a name tag—“I’m boring” or “I’m unlovable”—and introduce themselves to everyone else, as if at a party. Somehow, putting our feelings into words gives them less power.
Looking at our predicament from another person’s perspective is another way to gain some distance. For example, what would my friends think? They probably wouldn’t say you’re an incompetent employee and a poor excuse for a spouse. Eventually, by sitting with our feelings in this way, they may pass—along with the fatalistic stories we’ve concocted in our heads. That doesn’t mean they won’t ever return, but we’ll be more prepared if they do.
Emotional agility sets us up to thrive in life, David argues. Negative emotions can be clues to our deepest values, and the ways in which we may have gotten off track. Loneliness reminds us to make time for our relationships, for example, and anxiety might mean we’ve taken on too many projects. Once we’ve identified these inconsistencies, we can make small course corrections to point us in the right direction: setting up a weekly dinner with friends, for example, or deciding to say no to commitments in the near future.
If you’re familiar with mindfulness research, parts of David’s book will probably sound familiar. But where she adds value is in the step-by-step explanation of what to do in those mindless moments of pain that we all know too well. Eventually, we can honor our feelings but not be ruled by them. 
“[Emotional agility] is about choosing how you’ll respond to your emotional warning system,” writes David. “[It’s] about loosening up, calming down, and living with more intention.”

Inspirational Quote – January 14, 2017

“On particularly rough days when I’m sure I can’t possibly endure, I like to remind myself that my track record for getting through rough days so far is 100%…. and that’s pretty good.”

Pretty good? I’d say it was fantastic! We can all relate to this quote can’t we? I know I can. What’s the alternative when life strews your path with pain either physical or mental, sorrow, self-doubt, debt, or all the other things that can happen and you need to overcome and deal with. This also often happens when it’s just the latest in a long line of problems just adding to your sense of frustration. However, and here’s the thing to keep in mind, you’ve been here before and everything got sorted didn’t it? You moved on didn’t you? So what’s different this time? Exactly……nothing! Know and believe that it’s going to be ok this time too and it will.


Can Love Stories Change the World?

Deep within us all lies a tender heart. A heart that's been wounded, heroic, or generous. That guides us with a whisper, or drives us like a sergeant. No matter who we are, where we live, or what we've done, we all have stories with our hearts as protagonist. Love stories. Matt Hopwood believes these powerfully personal, emotive narratives can be transformational for both individuals and communities. Since 2012, he has collected hundreds of stories from his travels in England and elsewhere for his project, A Human Love Story. What drives him is the idea that these stories can change the world -- through the courage and vulnerability it takes to express them; by simply bringing them into awareness; and by using them in our human interactions to heal disconnections. Here, Hopwood shares from his heart more about his mission.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Inspirational Quote – January 13, 2017

“Stay focused on the Light and the shadows will always be behind you.”

As light tends to banish many of our fears and bring us peace and comfort we seek it out and welcome it. The same could be said of our state of mind when we are troubled or beset by worry and feeling stressed. It’s in our own best interests to do our best in order to stay positive and believe that our issues can and will be resolved, rather than allowing darkness to take hold and make everything appear worse than it really is. By focusing on the positive light ahead we consign our doubts and fears to the shadows behind us together where they belong.


Civic Beauty Without Permission

It wasn't long before Tony and I were standing on San Jose's Santa Clara Street, cars whizzing by, looking at a vintage concrete bridge. Its sides were tiled. In some places, the tile had been broken off, vandalized. Each panel featured colorful, original designs. The work, obviously, had required thousands of hours. But it wasn't finished and now stood in benign neglect. What happened here? I asked Tony. "It was Rick Hawes," he said. "I want to meet this guy," I told Tony. If a man had decided to just start tiling a bridge in the middle of San Jose without bothering to file for a permit, without seeing a commissioner, without lobbying the board --well, that would be a pure act of...of what? -- unauthorized civic improvement?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Can Compassion Training Help Physicians Avoid Burnout?

By Jill Suttie

A new study suggests that compassion training may buffer against the detrimental effects of high-stress medical training, particularly for those prone to depression.

All of us want our doctors to treat us with care. But the rigorous, high-stress training provided by medical schools seems to zap students of empathy for patients and well-being, making it less likely that these students will morph into compassionate caregivers later on.
Now, a new study suggests a potential remedy for overly stressed medical students: compassion training.
Researcher Jennifer Mascaro and colleagues from Emory University randomly assigned volunteer second-year medical students to either 10 weeks of Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) or to a waitlist.
The training, based on the Tibetan Buddhist practice of lojong, consists of cognitive exercises that strengthen students’ attention and explore the nature of suffering—how it arises in ourselves and others, of human interdependence, and of the randomness of labels that we assign to other people (e.g., friend vs. enemy vs. stranger). Ideally, the exercises inspire compassion: a naturally emerging desire to do things to help others relieve their suffering.
Before and after the training, students were asked to fill out various questionnaires related to their compassion levels, personal health, and well-being.
Results showed that students on the waitlist experienced declines in compassion similar to those found in past studies. However, students in the CBCT training did not experience reduced compassion, and they reported less depression and loneliness than students on the waitlist. In fact, those students who entered the year with the highest levels of depression seemed to benefit most from the compassion training.
According to Mascaro, these results lend support to the idea that CBCT could help physicians to stay compassionate toward their patients while maintaining personal well-being.
“It’s not the ability to be empathic or compassionate that leads to suffering depression or burnout in physicians; it’s the opposite—the blocks to compassion and empathy—that lead to suffering,” she says.
There’s a “hidden curriculum” in medical school endorsing the idea that physicians need to harden their hearts and not get too close to the suffering around them or they’ll burn out, says Mascaro. But teaching compassion is a powerful antidote, because it allows physicians to keep their hearts open without becoming overwhelmed.
Interestingly, students in the study who went through the program did not report decreased levels of stress, suggesting that CBCT is not about stress reduction, per se, but about a more sustainable way of managing it. Also, some of the medical students reported that CBCT didn’t seem effective for them, even though their survey results showed reduced depression and loneliness and increased compassion, says Mascaro.
In other words, CBCT could benefit doctors-to-be without them even realizing it.
CBCT is different from other meditation strategies like loving-kindness meditation, where compassion is trained more directly, or mindful breathing practices directed at stress reduction. Mascaro believes CBCT allows physicians to not simply reduce stress or decrease emotional contagion with suffering patients, but to specifically increase their motivation to care. In the Buddhist tradition, compassionate emotions naturally arise when you understand the meaning of suffering and our connection to all human beings.
“It’s clear from existing research that physician empathy (caring concern) impacts patient outcomes, impacts patient adherence to treatment plans, and decreases malpractice suits,” says Mascaro. “Our expectation is that if we assessed patient outcomes for these medical students who’ve been through CBCT, we would find really positive downstream effects.”
There is a lot more research needed to tease out these claims, though, and Mascaro is interested in further studying CBCT’s potentially unique impacts. She thinks it’s important when researching meditation-like programs to see how they interact with other aspects of a healthy lifestyle (like exercising, which actually decreased among CBCT participants in this study) and to rule out other explanations of the results. For example, she can’t say for sure if simply meeting regularly with a group of other students seeking compassion training or being part of an institution that clearly values compassion could have played a role in this study’s positive outcomes.
For those reasons and others, Mascaro would not yet recommend CBCT for everyone in medical school. But she does see it as a potentially useful intervention that could be part of a buffet of wellness programs intended to maintain wellness and to fight off compassion decline in medical students.
“Almost half of the student population voluntarily enrolled in this study,” says Mascaro. “That suggests to me that there is a hunger for alternative programs that impact well-being.” And, it seems, offering these to our future doctors could be a winning proposition for patients as well.

Inspirational Quote – January 12, 2017

“Bad news is: You cannot make people like, love, understand, validate, accept or be nice to you. You can’t control them either. Good news is: it doesn’t matter.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself! It’s all about your sense of self-worth and realizing you do not need the validation or indeed the stamp of approval from other people to tell you how special and unique you are. You should already know it. Also, and more importantly you wouldn’t behave like that towards them so why would you allow anyone to behave like that towards you? Live and let live I say. In the great scheme of things it really does not matter.


12 Questions Around Volunteerism

In this thoughtful piece ServiceSpace founder Nipun Mehta fields twelve probing questions on how to nurture and sustain a volunteer culture.  "Since 1999, ServiceSpace has been volunteer-run. It's a constraint and an asset. It opens us up to sensing multiple forms of capital...Leadership turns into laddership. Compassion is contagious; instead of pushing, we count on the pull. The metaphor shifts from manufacturing to gardening." Drawing on his ServiceSpace experience Mehta notes that "volunteers are strongest when they are moved by love."

[Last year, about fifteen of us had a breakout call with some visionaries of World in Conversation and Laddership Circles, around working with volunteers.  Below is a glimpse of the Q&A that emerged, on the call and afterwards.]

The most fundamental design principle is our mindset. Typically, volunteers are used as a means to an end -- this is our mission, we need this stuff done to achieve our mission, and you can help us do these chores. ServiceSpace doesn't work that way. For us, volunteer experience is an end in itself. We believe that if a volunteer has a transformative experience, it will naturally ripple out into the world. With that mindset, everything looks different -- it makes all our processes very relational, and conducive to leveraging volunteer in a unique way. (Reference: Spirit of Service)

What motivates volunteers?

Sociologists tells us that there are two fundamental kinds of incentives: extrinsic and intrinsic. Money is on the extrinsic side of things while compassion is on the intrinsic side of things, and of course, there's many in between from power to fame to growth to meaning. Each type of incentive has its strengths, and the strength of intrinsic rewards is that they are regenerative. If some has a fulfilling giving experience, they'll want to give again without any external intervention, coercion, or marketing. In ServiceSpace experience, we noted that volunteers are strongest when they are moved by love. :) (Reference: Do Nothing Generosity)

Do other incentives, like offering small stipends or school credit, increase their commitment?

It actually does the opposite. Research shows that mix-and-matching incentives starts to bias towards the external and strips away the regenerative capacity of intrinsic incentives. For example, renowned researcher Edward Deci studied people who loved to solve puzzles. Initially, they would solve puzzles just for the love of it, but then he started to pay them to do the same thing. At a later point, he stopped paying them and he expected them to return to their original state ... but lo and behold, they were no longer interested in solving puzzles at all! (Reference: Can We Create Social Change Without Money?)

Isn’t it valuable to support people by giving them a job?

Absolutely, but you also can’t be all things to all people. You have to choose your creative constraints. In ServiceSpace, we felt that money will optimize our capacity to work in predictable, factory-like way but that corporate approach didn’t feel aligned with how compassion seemed to operate -- in an emergent, gardening-like way, where you plant seeds and wait for it to bloom naturally. So we chose three creative constraints: be fully volunteer-run, don’t fundraise, and focus on small acts. It limited us in some ways, but just as a blind woman cultivates an attuned sense of hearing, our constraints also opened up all kind of other resources. (Reference: Tao of CharityFocus, video on Values of CharityFocus)

It takes a lot of overhead to manage volunteers. How do we build that capacity?

Use volunteers to manage volunteers. Researchers have found that post-disaster relief work is more productive with ad-hoc support from well-intentioned individuals than formal organizational efforts. We can imagine that in an emergency situation, but would it work elsewhere? At Karma Kitchen, volunteers who have never served at a restaurant before and have never worked with each other come together to operate a complete restaurant, after just a half hour orientation. We’ve operated such events with thousands of different volunteers and no HR department. :) It works when management leads with gratitude, instead of hierarchical power. We think of it as a shift from “leadership” to “laddership”, where you lead in a way that explicitly empowers others to “climb” over you, a kind of ‘servant leadership’ that serves first and leads second. When your volunteer journey has been ‘laddered’, held by someone else selflessly, some of the recipients, over time, will naturally feel gratitude and want to pay it forward to others in the same way. Such a web of gratitude is the key to tapping into this resource. (Reference: Emergence of Laddership Circles)

Unlike paid staff, volunteers flake a lot more. How do we offset this?

Build redundancy. Nature is a great example, in that if one strand fails to deliver on its promise, another steps in to back it up. Post Hurricane Katrina, all houses were upended but oak trees survived -- not only because they had deep roots, but because those roots were interconnected with other oak tree roots, sometimes spanning 100 miles! That resilience is predicated on the number of connections in an ecosystem. To optimize for number of connections in a network, “many to many” model is the exponentially strongest option. Think Internet versus TV (one-to-many) or telephone (one-to-one). (Reference: Gandhi 3.0)

How can we increase volunteer retention?

A fluid engagement spectrum. If a volunteer can easily dial-up or dial-down their involvement, they are likely to not only stick around but take on more “laddership” roles in the future. To do this, you need many different ways to engage. With a vibrant engagement spectrum, volunteers can give time one-time, or little bit every month, or more regularly, or even fifty hours a week for certain stretches of time. To actively maintain such a spectrum would require a massive amount of staff, but if you have a volunteer run ecosystem, it spins off a virtuous cycle: as volunteers engage with one part of the spectrum, some of them turn from consumers to contributors; because the cost of failure and barrier to leadership is low, those contributors can become initiators and hold their own spot on the engagement spectrum. As more people engage, more projects are generated; as the project breadth diversifies, it attracts more engagement. (Reference: ServiceSpace Engagement Spectrum)

How do we attract more volunteers?

Don’t. Instead of pushing, allow for the pull. Typically, people have a supply of some product, idea, or world view, and we leverage our ‘markets’ to push that onto others. For instance, let’s say you want to spread kindness. One approach is to create a plan for ‘billion acts of kindness’ platform, fundraise under the pretext of solving rampant rise in bullying, create a marketing campaign to inform others of it. That puts the onus of success on you. It’s pushy, and heavy. An alternate approach is to simply practice the values. Do regular acts of kindness yourself, tell those stories, and keep your doors open for anyone who wants to engage further.  Values like greed aren't sustainably motivating -- but with innate values like kindness, people will gravitate towards it. All ServiceSpace resources arrive unsolicited -- we send 70 million emails a year, but not a single ad; we're invited to speak to tens of thousands in person every year, without applying anywhere. We’ve been offered 7-digit checks; our first time on TV was half hour live on CNN (after Hillary Clinton).  All unsolicited. It starts with practicing the values, letting go of scale, and trusting the pull. (Reference: Generosity 2.0)

Our work requires very specialized skills. Can we still leverage volunteers?

Surely, but it’s a design challenge. Not all work is conducive to a volunteer-run ecosystem, but lots of specialized work can handily leverage volunteers, if the problem was designed with that contribution in mind. Linux is the Internet’s most widely used operating system, and it was built entirely by volunteers. People around the world share living room space, via the trust generated on Couch Surfing -- all volunteers. Alcoholics Anonymous has impacted countless lives by being entirely voluntary. ServiceSpace is an incubator that has led to many online and offline projects that are touching millions of lives. The Internet itself can be seen a giant act of volunteerism. The challenge isn’t about specialized skills, but rather if the problem can redesigned in a distributed and decentralized fashion that can seamlessly integrate skilled contributions. (Reference: Generosity Entrepreneurs)

Volunteers burn out. How do we work around that?

Focus on inner transformation. Researchers have studied compassion fatigue and all volunteer managers will tell you about volunteer burnout. Part of it is a systemic problem, in that responsible volunteers end up attracting increasing amounts of work to the point of being overwhelmed; but part of it also happens due to a motivation mismatch between staff and volunteers. In fully volunteer-run ecosystems where everyone is driven by inner transformation, there is greater self-correction and self-organization. That sensitivity addresses the problem before it manifests as burnout. For instance, in ServiceSpace, it led to a culture of DailyGood emails and local Awakin Circles and stories of kind acts, all of which helps keep the fire burning. Moreover, in such a setting, if people are held safely during their challenging phases, the resulting inner transformation will lead to greater gratitude and greater output. (Reference: The Organic Gift)

How do we innovate with volunteers?

Working with volunteers reduces your cost of failure, considering that volunteers work for free. :) As a result, you can create a culture of experimentation. Instead of having one grand plan and hiring staff to execute it, you can instead “let a thousand flowers bloom.” Some ideas may fail, but some may be unexpectedly revolutionary! Leadership, in such a field, looks to “search and amplify” instead of “plan and execute”. When we printed 100 Smile Cards, we didn’t anticipate millions of cards floating around the world in the next decade, or Smile Decks in so many languages, or an online community with thousands of stories posted every month, or a 21-day challenge portal. It all emerged because we had leadership (volunteers, of course) who could spot those “patterns of positive deviance” and amplify them. Even in the commercial world, this voluntary approach is precisely what allowed Google to build some of its major products like Gmail. Innovation is similarly possible in a volunteer context, but it just takes a different pathway. (Ref: Four Stages of Community Building, Startup Service’s 8 Questions)

How do we introduce such a volunteer ethos, in a traditional organizational context?

Be the change. Ultimately, every organization is made of people and if those people are sensitized to this spirit of inner transformation, they are likely to find new ways to solve old problems. Minute of silence before meetings, 21-day challenges as a group, circle of sharing. Instead of dramatic, overnight changes, we find small nudges to be much more potent. At a Denmark hotel, guests chose apples over sugary-snacks when they placed a "apple a day, keeps the doctor away" sign next to it. On organ donation forms, countries with default of 'yes' lead to 97.56% donations, while default of 'no' leads to 22.73% -- what is the default for igniting greater generosity? Research shows that introducing just one consistent contributor tilts the entire network towards more generosity. Small acts make a big difference. (Reference: Designing For Generosity)

In summary … 

Since 1999, ServiceSpace has been volunteer-run. It’s a constraint and an asset. It opens us up to sensing multiple forms of capital. In our gratitude network, connections run much deeper than FaceBook. No one is paid, and that’s why they work even harder. Leadership turns into laddership. Compassion is contagious; instead of pushing, we count on the pull. Metaphor shifts from manufacturing to gardening. It’s an ecology of unending experiments in generosity. People are motivated by inner transformation, a regenerative resource. We can’t predict outcomes, but we trust emergence. Consumers become contributors, as an engagement spectrum arises. Transaction shifts to multi-dimensional relationships. A great field of love is created. Who knows if it’ll scale and change the world, but there is no rush -- it always takes nine months to deliver a child. :) We rejoice in doing small acts with great love. Every part of the process feels like an important outcome. This breath, here and now.     

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

How to Fight Stress with Empathy

By Arthur P. Ciaramicoli

Psychologist Arthur Ciaramicoli argues that empathic listening may be the key to reducing stress in our lives.

How many times have you been concerned about a friend or other loved one and asked if everything’s all right only to be told, “Oh, I’m just stressed,” as if there’s nothing to worry about?
We often use the words “I’m stressed” casually in our everyday conversations, with little acknowledgment of the adverse effects of stress in our lives. But evidence suggests that we should be much more concerned about our stress levels than we are.
The Center for Disease Control found that 66 percent of American workers say they lie awake at night troubled by the physical or emotional effects of stress, and stress has been linked to many health problems, including obesity and heart disease—especially among low-income Americans. Stress not only affects us, but it can impact those around us, too, especially our children.
Not all stress is bad, of course. Stress can also be invigorating or lead us to care about the welfare of others, if channeled in the right way. Nor is it always avoidable—many of us have lives with stressors beyond our personal control. But, psychologists have identified key variable that determine whether stress ultimately affects us positively or negatively:
  • Our perception of stress
  • The meaning we attach to it
  • Our ability to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity
  • The degree of control we have over the circumstances that produce the stress
In my experience, many people don’t recognize the role that their own perceptions, fueled by biases, play in exacerbating stress. By becoming more aware of our biases in perception, we can learn to focus on the truthful assessment of situations we encounter without distorting reality, thereby remaining calm, energetic, creative, and resilient when faced with highly stressful situations.
As a psychologist, I’ve worked with countless people who suffer from debilitating stress in their lives, often without recognizing how it impacts their health, relationships, and work lives. In my book, The Stress Solution, I provide an outline of the research-based steps I often give to my clients so that they can learn to manage stress in more positive ways.
To some extent, we can reduce stress by simply taking good care of ourselves through getting proper sleep, exercise, and nutrition. But, to really thrive in the face of stress, we should also work toward finding meaning or purpose in our work or other activities, and toward nurturing our positive relationships using empathy.
Why use empathy? Because when we give and receive empathy we produce the near magical neurotransmitter oxytocin, which creates a sense of trust and cooperation—keys to negotiating and resolving conflict, whether between couples, communities, states, or countries. Leading with empathy can help those around us to be sources of support in our lives and reduce the likelihood of interpersonal conflicts.
This essay was adapted from <a href=“”><em>The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience</em></a>, by Arthur P. Ciaramicoli (New World Library, 2016)This essay was adapted from The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience, by Arthur P. Ciaramicoli (New World Library, 2016)
Of course, it may be difficult to imagine feeling empathic when we are angry or tired. Think of a couple reuniting after a long day of work. Without first connecting through empathy and love, they may end up fighting over whose turn it is to do the dishes or simply withdrawing from each other, depriving themselves of the comfort that closeness brings.
How to avoid this? By practicing empathic listening with one another instead of falling on our usual patterns.
Too many of us listen to each other with half an ear, preoccupied and not fully present. We tend to listen with bias, making up our minds before we hear the full story, or to connect everything the other person says to our own experience without considering their perspective. We then make well-meaning comments that do not honor the uniqueness of the other’s person’s thoughts or feelings, such as, “I know what you’re going through.” Or, we get distracted by the noise of our internal voices and end up judging or second-guessing one another, which keeps us from really listening. Without truly listening, we run the risk of losing connection and making false assumptions.
What does empathic listening look like? It requires giving up a self-centered view of the world, focusing and paying attention, and setting aside biases or distorted thinking to connect with another person’s emotions. It means coming to your interactions with a true desire for connection and understanding, rather than winning.
Empathy is easier when we understand some of the stories we carry inside about who we are and learn to see how it clouds our reactions and judgments. If we have been humiliated in childhood or starved of attention, we may have trouble trusting others or feeling comfortable with intimacy. Couples who fight a lot often carry stories like these about themselves—perhaps feeling unworthy because of past hurts—that make it hard for them to be present and more vulnerable to their partners.
But, when people learn to respond with empathic listening, it can help them to shift from their stories and distorted ways of thinking. They become less likely to take something done or said personally, assume that other people hold similar attitudes to one’s own, or focus only on the negative instead of the positive in a situation.
Here are some of the recommendations I make to help people enhance their empathic listening and their ability to express empathy:
  • Reflect what others say to you by either repeating or rephrasing what someone has said. It sounds like you had a lot going on today at work, right?
  • Emphasize the feeling behind the words and check on the accuracy of your interpretation. You sound exhausted. Is there something affecting you at work?
  • Pay attention to body language. You look tense. What can I do to help?
  • Ask open-ended questions, to show you are interested in their perspective. How was your day at the office? Not, Why are you so late?
  • Slow down and take a deep breath to calm yourself if you are feeling your buttons being pushed or if you are absorbing someone else’s tension. Slowing down your emotional reactions can be helpful for truly tuning in to another person and not being tripped up by your own reactivity. Some people have found that mindfulness meditation, self-compassion, or compassion training can help with this kind of emotional regulation.
  • Avoid snap judgments. Empathy means seeing human beings as always changing and evolving; so you don’t want to judge and shut the person down.
  • Learn from the past. If you are unaware of your own biases and often jump to conclusions, you will have trouble truly listening to another person and perceiving them accurately. Know your personal biases and use cognitive reframing—a technique that involves reconsidering your interpretations of events, something I describe in detail in my book—to help you reevaluate what’s actually happening in a given conflict or situation versus what you’re telling yourself at the time. By engaging your brain in this way, you can rewire it to be less emotionally triggered and to calm your nervous system.
Learning to communicate with empathy can go a long way toward building more positivity in your relationships and reducing your stress. If we all focused more on listening and understanding each other, the world would be a lot less stressful—and a lot happier—place to live.