Lessons in Empathy

Unstuck recently posted some great lessons on empathy:

Empathy lesson 1: Slow down and put yourself in a neutral state of mind.
The brain is pre-set for empathy. There’s a section called the supramarginal gyrus where the capacity for empathy and compassion resides. The scientists who discovered this in 2013 also learned that the brain does not activate empathy if 1. we’re forced to make quick decisions and 2. our current emotional state is the opposite of the other person’s (I’m having a good day; nothing is going right for you).

Empathy lesson 2: Consciously ask yourself, “How might this person think and feel about this?”
Researchers have also learned that people with low empathy tendencies (such as narcissists) can increase their ability to step outside of themselves when directed to look at a situation from another’s point of view.

Empathy lesson 3: Exercise your mind in ways that help empathy occur more naturally.
Science has known for more than 100 years that the brain is “plastic,” meaning it can reorganize itself and make new connections. Now, several recent studies have found that meditation can grow fibers that connect separate areas of the brain. This interconnectedness builds “the gateway of empathy and compassion through mindful meditation,” says Dr. Dan Seigal, executive director of the Mindsight Institute. The loving-kindness meditation, in particular, helped direct the brain’s attention to a more compassionate mindset.

How to build an empathy habit
Meditation can pave a wider gateway to our empathy, but like guest-speaking at an event, we need to know what to do once we get there. So let’s break empathy down into five areas that are practicable. After awhile, those pieces should naturally put themselves back together again.

1. Understand yourself. Before we can extend empathy to someone else, it helps to be in touch with our own experiences and emotions, and what they’ve taught us. A shining example of this is Zak Ebrahim, who outed himself at TED 2014 as the peace-loving son of a terrorist. Throughout his childhood, he was bullied for his appearance. This, he says, “created a sense of empathy in me toward the suffering of others.” (You can watch his talk here.)

2. Listen fully. When you follow these rules, you’ll hear more:
• Let the other person do most of the talking.
• Look at the speaker.
• Don’t interrupt but do make encouraging responses and nods.
• Ask questions that allow the speaker to expand on the topic.

3. Recognize the unspoken. Humans speak volumes with their eyes and facial expressions (ever notice someone whose mouth is smiling but her eyes aren’t?). Test your eye IQ with this simple, but not so easy, eye-reading test. Also look for microexpressions that occur in less than a second and reveal how someone is feeling at that moment. This guide will help you read them.

4. Reserve judgment. Put aside your point of view so you can consciously hear and see the situation from someone else’s. You don’t have to agree with the other person, but you do need to accept what is, rather than focus on what you think it should be. If you find yourself lapsing into judgment mode, switch to curiosity and try to get a better understanding of the situation.

5. Acknowledge. The goal is to let the speaker know that you’ve heard and understood what he’s saying. This usually includes acknowledging feelings (“that sounds hard,” “you seem overwhelmed”) as well as beliefs. This encourages the other person to continue to open up. NB: Acknowledging never involves giving advice, changing the topic, or disapproving.

You can practice these empathy interactions with a friend by sharing experiences and thoughts with other each that you might not ordinarily reveal.

Ask your partner some of the questions below or any from this list designed by social psychology researcher Arthur Aron to foster closeness by building empathy. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and, in turn, listen without judgment:

• What do you feel most grateful for in your life?
• If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
• Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
• What is an embarrassing moment in your life?
• What is a problem you’re dealing with right now that you wish you had help with?

The more you practice empathy, the stronger those muscles become until you can count on them to help you — and others — in any stuck moment.

Domestic Violence

36.8 % of homelessness in Australia (as documented by Homelessness Australia with data from the AIHW Specialist homelessness services data collection 2012-13) is caused by domestic and family violence.  This is the most common cause.

Since February this year in just Melbourne alone, there have been 3 high profile cases of domestic violence leading to murder (Luke Batty, a women stabbed to death in Sunshine and 2 sisters murdered).  These tragic events serve as an alarm siren for us in Australia to bring about change.   

The Age, are calling it the Family Violence epidemic, and  Fiona McCormack, the head of Domestic Violence Victoria, said more needed to be done for at-risk women and children.

"If women and children were being abused and murdered by strangers at the rate at which they're being abused and murdered by men in their family, there'd be taskforce, there'd be funding, there'd be political will"

The Lookout is a great place to go, for more info, help and support with this issue.  

Lets talk about this issue and bring some light into this dark hidden place in Australian family life.  

The Conditioned

Raimundo Arruda Sobrinho was homeless in São Paulo, Brazil, for nearly 35 years, and became locally known for sitting in the same spot and writing every day. In April 2011, he was befriended by a young woman named Shalla Monteiro. Impressed by his poetry and wanting to help him with his dream of publishing a book, she created a Facebook Page to feature Raimundo’s writing. Neither could have expected what happened next.

What do you do when you see a homeless person?

It's hard to know how to respond when you see a homeless person.  Do you ignore them and just keep walking (they probably aren't really homeless in the first place and just trying to scam you)? Do you buy them some food, cause you don't want them to buy drugs or alcohol? Do you give them money? Do you stop and chat?  

I don't think there is ever really a clear cut answer as to how to respond.  People will disagree as to what the right thing to do is.  At Urban Seed we try and challenge people to think about it from a different point of view.  Do we really know what it is like to be homeless and what you might need if you are homeless?  Would it matter if we gave them money and they went and bought drugs or alcohol?  What do we buy with our money?  Does anyone tell us how we are to spend our money?  What would it mean if we acknowledged the homeless person? If we smiled at them? Talked to them about their day? 

Roman Krznaric (a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living.  A founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, who advises organisations including Oxfam and the United Nations on using empathy and conversation to create social change), believes that empathy and empathic thinking can create social change.  He says that empathy is more than just sympathy.  It is the ability to powerfully imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of another.  In a recent  blog post he challenges us to empathise with the telesales caller.  He suggests that by merely imagining what the job might be like for them (made easier for him as he once was a telesales caller himself) and engaging in conversation with them will powerful revolutionise the world.  

"So while part of me wants to immediately press the red button and end the call, I do my best to focus on the caller and treat them with decency. In an effort to make a personal connection, I sometimes find out their name and where they are phoning from, which can lead to surprising – if usually short – conversations about their lives, and my own. I nearly always tell them that I know what their job is like, because I’ve done it too, and I wish them well with the rest of their calls. Imagining myself into their lives and showing a little respect is the least I can do to bridge our faceless digital divide.

Such brief encounters with strangers may, at first glance, seem trivial affairs. But I believe they are the beginnings of a revolution that can weave the world together into an invisible tapestry of human connection."

 

What would it mean if were to apply this same thinking and acting when we see a homeless person?  Maybe next time you think just acknowledging or smiling at a homeless person is pointless act, you might think twice.  

Roman Krznaric challenges us in our response to the homeless people we see:

It is important to understand what empathy is and is not. If you see a homeless person living under a bridge you may feel sorry for him and give him some money as you pass by. That is pity or sympathy, not empathy. If, on the other hand, you make an effort to look at the world through his eyes, to consider what life is really like for him, and perhaps have a conversation that transforms him from a faceless stranger into a unique individual, then you are empathising. 

 

Hungry Planet - What the World Eats

Chad: The Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp Food expenditure per week: 685 CFA Francs ($1.23) Image copyright Peter Menzel, menzelphoto.com

Chad: The Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp

Food expenditure per week: 685 CFA Francs ($1.23)

Image copyright Peter Menzel, menzelphoto.com

In 2013 a book, called Hungry Planet, (by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Alusio) was published exploring how families eat around the world.  Families have been photographed in front of their weekly food and how much they spend each week has been recorded.  It provides a stunning visual illustration about the divide between rich and poor, as well as the difference in diet between cultures and countries.  It serves as a reminder as to how lucky we are.  I wonder what a project like this would look like if done here in Australia? 

To see more images from the book click here.

Australia: The Browns of River View Food expenditure per week: 481.14 Australian dollars ($376.45) Image copyright Peter Menzel, menzelphoto.com

Australia: The Browns of River View

Food expenditure per week: 481.14 Australian dollars ($376.45)

Image copyright Peter Menzel, menzelphoto.com

United States: The Revis family of North Carolina Food expenditure for one week: $341.98 Image copyright Peter Menzel, menzelphoto.com

United States: The Revis family of North Carolina

Food expenditure for one week: $341.98

Image copyright Peter Menzel, menzelphoto.com

Egypt: The Ahmed family of Cairo Food expenditure per week: 387.85 Egyptian Pounds ($68.53) Image copyright Peter Menzel, menzelphoto.com

Egypt: The Ahmed family of Cairo

Food expenditure per week: 387.85 Egyptian Pounds ($68.53)

Image copyright Peter Menzel, menzelphoto.com