I saw this great quote on Facebook today:
“If you are willing to look at another person’s behavior toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time cease to react at all.” Yogi Bhajan
Heavy stuff, I know. For me this boils down to empathy. What is empathy? In its most basic form it is feeling with someone. The key is with. This differentiates it from sympathy, as sympathy is feeling for someone. Let’s take the example of losing a parent. If you have lost a parent, you may have an easier time empathizing with that person because you have experienced it yourself, so you are with them in the grief. If you have never lost a parent, the first reaction may be to sympathize with that person. You feel sad for them.
I have a real world example that can show the power of empathy. I worked with a man I will call T. T took his job very seriously as he was in the role of helping people with their finances. He was generally a great guy to work with, but under stress could get a little demanding. One summer T was out of the office more than usual, and when he was in the office he was somewhat short and terse. I was the supervisor of the associates, and one day W (one of his associates) came in and was complaining about T. She relayed how, according to his emails, he always wanted his work done first, he was dumping a lot on her, couldn’t he do more for himself? W’s opinion of him was that he thought he was more important than everyone else. Now T had some things going on his life that were public knowledge, and I gently reminded her of a few things.
• Did she realize that T was studying for a new financial designation? She and T were roughly the same age, so I asked her if she would be willing to back to school. She said no. That started the thinking process.
• I asked her if she recalled that T’s wife was having some serious health issues. She did, but I don’t believe she connected what he was dealing with to how he may be acting.
• And lastly, I asked her to remember that his son had some health issues of his own.
Now it was starting to dawn on her. Had she considered where he was coming from? If she really thought about his situation, would her interpretation that he was “better than everyone else” be different? That was the lesson of empathy I was trying to teach her.
I am still a victim of thinking when someone snaps at me, or sends an email I interpret as hostile or demeaning, that it is directed at me. I get myself all riled up in reaction until I consciously shift my focus to the other person. At the very least I ask myself what could be happening with them that could cause them to act that way. I may not know an answer, but I can guess it has nothing to do with me. And like the quote by Yogi Bhajan intones, the more we practice empathy, the less reactionary we will be, maybe not even reacting at all. I am not there yet, but I am practicing. How about you?

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