Archive for Compassion

Learning to understand people

I think that understanding others is really not so difficult. The problem is that most of us do not really try. In fact, often we deliberately try not to understand. When we fight with someone, we want to believe that we are in the right, and the easiest way to do this is by not seeing their point of view. Although this strategy may protect our self-esteem in the short-term, it does nothing to resolve the conflict. Furthermore, by pretending not to understand the other person’s point of view, we are lying to ourselves. This actually ends up harming our self-esteem in the long run.

Simply wanting to understand someone is 90% of the battle. When we make a genuine effort to do so, it is quite easy. However, it does take practice to properly hone our skills. We need to get good at putting ourselves in someone’s shoes and trying to imagine what they’re feeling. It is important that we do not imagine what they ought to be feeling, or what we would be feeling in their situation. Instead, based on what we know of the person, we need to think very carefully of what they will be feeling. Think through all of the possibilities and ask which is most consistent with their behaviour, and which is most consistent with what we know about that person. It is simple, but few people do it.

Learning to understand people makes a big difference to our lives. We become more considerate and forge closer relationships. Furthermore, we are less liable to get hurt, because we can see past people’s behaviour and understand why they do the things they do. Therefore, we should devote a lot of attention to achieving this goal, and if we ever find ourselves sabotaging it by lying to ourselves and pretending not to see, we should be immediately alerted. We should recognize that any short-term gain in self-esteem achieved by this strategy will be far overwhelmed by the suffering that we cause, the ongoing conflict in our life, and the shame that results from lying to ourselves.

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Looking for the real problem

Imagine an alien waking up inside a human body. The human body has not eaten and thus the alien experiences hunger. How would the alien react? It would feel a pain inside the stomach and would not know how to cure it. Maybe the alien would panic and believe it was going to die. Maybe it would try useless solutions such as massaging its stomach. Maybe it would try harmful solutions such as cutting out the stomach. Yet in reality there was a very simple solution: eat. This example demonstrates the importance of knowing the true source of our problems.

Most of us know that the pangs of hunger are not a tragedy, they are simply a sign that we need to eat. What about other feelings? Many of us feel depressed when we have not had enough sleep, or have had too much alcohol. In this state of depression we might think that all kinds of terrible things are wrong with our life. We may run around trying to fix them, just as the alien might cut out its stomach. Yet all that we really need to do is sleep.

Always go to the heart of the matter. If a friend or spouse is yelling at you, don’t just react in like fashion. Think about why she is yelling. Maybe she is just feeling insecure and needs some reassurance. The symptoms of a problem are not always a good reflection of the cause, and often they are much worse. So when things seem bad, don’t panic, and don’t treat the symptoms. Instead, look for the true cause of the problem, and the right course of action should be clear.

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