I went for a run along the East River yesterday. I passed a group of fisherman. One of them must have caught a fish and left it alive, flapping around on the floor next to his tackle box. The fish was bleeding out of a belly wound. I slowed down and contemplated interfering. However, since my experience with these situations has been that I end up in a fight, I decided to mind my own business.
Archives for April 2015
It’s so difficult to know what to say when a friend shares news about a serious illness, a death in the family, or a recent tragedy. Often the trite ‘I’m sorry’ tumbles out, awkwardness follows, and a big opportunity to connect is missed.
I never knew exactly what to say in these situations. And then one month ago, my three year old daughter was diagnosed with cancer and I was quickly versed in the many ways friends and acquaintances responded to my family’s incomprehensible news. Shockingly, one acquaintance familiar with my daughter’s diagnosis because of a Facebook post, literally ran away from us rather than face her small bald head in person. Another met us for lunch but avoided all direct conversation about the topic. Talk about ignoring one very enormous bald elephant in the room! And while those were the extreme examples of uncomfortable behavior, at the same time there were also many remarkably supportive reactions to our devastating news.
Here’s a list of the top 10 things my friends said or did that provided comfort, reassurance, and warmed me to the core. The next time you find yourself reacting to someone’s bad news, have a few responses from this list ready to go and you won’t be left stumbling for the right thing to say or do.
1. Thank you so much for telling me. A simple thank you was one of the most surprisingly sweet reactions that I received. When a friend felt that it was a privilege to receive my news, it meant so much. Thank you, along with an attentive, calm presence, provided a very comforting result. Sometimes all that’s required in a difficult situation is being a witness to someone else’s anxiety or sorrow. If you only have a few words to offer, saying thank you is a nice alternative to the overdone, ‘I’m sorry’.
2. This really puts things in perspective. When I was able to provide a friend with the opportunity to reflect on his own health and well being, it brought optimism to the conversation. It also allowed space to take the focus off of my daughter’s situation, which was often a welcome relief. When a friend was able to express both compassion and a sense of gratitude, the conversation turned hopeful. It is not always easy to appreciate good health while you have it.
3. I’m coming over once a week with a home cooked meal. During life’s difficult moments, the importance of food is often overlooked. Not only is it very hard to find the time or energy to eat, cooking is usually the very last thing to receive attention. When a friend committed to delivering a weekly meal along with his company, it became a true lifeline for our family.
4. I’m organizing a meal drop off this month with a group of friends. When another good friend asked if she could organize our common friends to drop off home-cooked meals every Tuesday and Thursday for a month, I agreed. Sharing the cooking as a group fostered a sense of community and my family felt so uplifted by our friend’s good will. Because our daughter’s chemotherapy treatment spanned a long period of time, friends let us decide if the meal plan was still helpful at the end of every month. Over time, other friends experienced their own roadblocks and among our group, the tradition of a cooking tree has served us well. I’ve now been on both the giving and receiving side of meal delivery and cannot believe how touching the practice is.
5. I am coming to visit. There is nothing like the physical presence of a good friend amidst a crisis. When a good friend can be a witness, hold your hand, dry tears, ask how you are feeling in this moment, all of this helps on the journey towards healing. When an offer to visit at the hospital or at home came up, I never turned it down. It was especially helpful if friends offered a specific window of availability such as two hours in the afternoon on Saturday or Sunday. The more specific the better.
6. I’ve located a support group that might be helpful. There are many online listservs, hangouts, communities and support groups that focus on a variety of topics. Often in the midst of tragedy, there is little time to reflect on or locate helpful resources. This can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed or isolated. Connecting with others that are going through the same thing often provides insight and relief from suffering. One friend located and suggested I join a cancer support group on Facebook that focused on the very specific kind of childhood cancer my daughter had been diagnosed with and while I initially hesitated because I thought it would clog up my feed, I now find the updates informative and it has also led to new friendships and a sense of shared humanity.
7. I will help with fundraising. Illness, death and other tragedies often incur unanticipated expenses. When a friend offered to help set up a fundraising site for my daughter, and another spread the word about it, the tender messages and generous donations that came in through the site moved us tremendously and were so practical in helping us face the mounting expenses of travel and medical bills. There are now so many wonderful websites like youcaring.com and giveforward.com that enable point-and-click fundraising for a loved one in need.
8. You are constantly in my thoughts. When a friend offers positive, healing thoughts, it is a caring, supportive act that can transcend spiritual affiliation. I’ve had friends put my daughter’s name on Tibetan prayer wheels, lift our family up through Christian prayer groups, speak of her health in both Jewish and Muslim religious ceremonies, and even send Reiki distant energy healing. I’ve always welcomed all good-intentioned, positive thoughts. At my lowest points, whenever I received a spontaneous text or email that informed me we were in a friend’s thoughts at that very moment, it was incredibly moving.
9. Is there an opportunity to celebrate? There may be an opportunity, when some time has passed and bad news is not so fresh, to recall a positive memory or mark an occasion related to the situation. I received a small handmade book of photo memories from birth through year four on the occasion of my daughter’s 4th birthday. Receiving this thoughtful collection of photos amidst her health crisis, reminded us of happy times. In addition to her birthday, we also managed to mark Halloween by celebrating ancestors that passed before us and Thanksgiving by incorporating a daily recording of what we were grateful for during the month of November. While I did not feel as celebratory or festive during these events as in past years, going through the familiar motions and traditions encouraged hopefulness within that we would get through this.
10. You are amazing. You are so strong. You will get through this. A positive affirmation is often the most straightforward way to offer support. Don’t hesitate to remind your friend how resilient she is. Frequently repeat a sentiment that you sincerely believe and soon your friend will also believe those words. Remind her that while it may be a difficult year ahead, she will get through it because she is strong. She is amazing. And she will be even stronger after persevering through the experience.
When responding to bad news, do not put the onus on the person enduring the hardship to tell you what you can do to help. These recommendations are all examples of effective words and actionable items that will allow you to contribute. Try one of these ten recommendations the next time someone needs you to be there in a meaningful way.
Sky Khan is a founding member of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care and an active presence at the Haven Hospice in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital where she provides compassionate care for the terminally ill and dying. She is the founder of Generous.nyc and a speaker, author and educator on the topic of generosity. She is also an advisor to cancerversary.nyc, zenyc.org and grief.nyc.
Brain research, especially over the last decade, has provided unique and helpful insights into problems and questions in many areas and disciplines including computer science, economics, education, philosophy, politics, psychology and robotics. An area of neuroscience research with the potential to profoundly change the way we think and interact in society (from classrooms to living rooms to boardrooms) is the work being done in labs focused on understanding the difference between compassion and empathy. The compassion-empathy difference is more than semantic; the consequences are pragmatic. The distinction is real and so is its effect on society: knowing the difference can help individuals build resiliency and avoid burnout as well as turn “empathy gaps,” which have recently made headlines, into junctures for local community and national strength.
Compassion and empathy are not synonymous. Empathy is feeling the same emotion as someone else and compassion is feeling kindness towards another person. Where empathy is about stepping into the shoes of another to understand and share their feelings, compassion is about acquiring a 360 degrees understanding of the suffering or problem that a person is experiencing and taking action to resolve it. Compassion is a two-step process of understanding and acting but empathy is only one step and it is about emotionally absorbing the feelings of another.
Our brain knows the difference between compassion and empathy even if we aren’t aware of it. Tania Singer, director of neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Lepzig, Germany has used MRI scanners to show that compassion and empathy “are two different phenomena associated with different brain activity patterns.” When we think compassionately we “light up” the same regions of the brain as love but empathetic thinking lights up regions associated with pain.
The neuroscience effect of having compassion at the forefront of our thinking is positive for each of us as individuals and for our communities. The effect, in very basic terms, is that when we think from a compassionate mindset, we release the peptide hormone oxytocin, which then activates the neurotransmitters of dopamine (brain reward) and serotonin (anxiety reduction) contributing to happiness and optimism—two characteristics that contribute to success.
Compassion’s strength as a power source for fostering communal as well as individual success is that it is not only derived from the same neural networks as love but it is centrally focused on the concern and care for others. When empathy is used as the source for helping another, the central motivation is to alleviate your own pain and stress. And that egocentric motivation is, I believe, one of the keys for understanding why burnout occurs much easier when we think empathetically. Emotionally absorbing another’s feelings, which empathy entails, is physically draining and can make you feel metaphorically stuck in quicksand. Compassion, on the other hand, keeps the emotional quicksand at a distance by using a more cognitive understanding of a person’s suffering when attempting to alleviate the pain: understanding without absorbing. We have confused compassion fatigue with empathy fatigue and that confusion has been reflected repeatedly in major media outlets over the last few months. If our society’s caregivers (i.e., nurses, paramedics, doctors, social workers, police and fire personnel, etc…) could learn how to harness the power of compassion, they would be helping themselves just as much as they are helping others. Their resiliency is an important source of our community strength.
Research has clearly shown that compassion can be taught and learned. Envision a world in which economics, education, medicine and even politics are infused with more compassion. Practicing compassion in politics would not only help Congress to act but act constructively. Imagine politicians who do more than say “I feel your pain” (empathy) but actually understand and do something about it (compassion): we would have more politicians who act with principles rather than for principal. Our modern political world could reflect the words of President Lincoln: “Republicans are for both the man and the dollar; but in case of conflict, the man before the dollar.”
Let’s fill in life’s empathy gaps with the compassion two-step. Let’s ride the neural networks of compassion to stronger and more resilient communities. While Dr. Singer and others are researching “whether it is possible to transform people’s empathetic reactions into compassionate action,” shouldn’t we just simply create waves of kindness that our neural networks naturally want to ride?
Dr. Chris Kukk is Professor of Political Science at Western Connecticut State University, a Fulbright Scholar, Director of the Kathwari Honors Program and founding Director of the Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation. He’s also Co-Founder and CEO of InnovOwl LLC, a ‘think and do’ consulting firm that solves micro and macro problems through innovative education.
Reprinted from http://chriskukk.com/.
Buddhists are known for promoting a philosophy of nonviolence, compassion and interconnection of all beings. According to provocative new research, simply being exposed to Buddhist terminology may be enough to activate tolerance and compassion among both Buddhists and non-Buddhists.
Researchers from Stanford University, along with scientists from Belgium and Taiwan, found that exposing people of different spiritual backgrounds to Buddhist concepts was effective in not only undercutting prejudice but also in promoting prosociality, which includes having a sense of responsibility for others, feelings of compassion and empathy.
The study, which was published in the April issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, illustrates a phenomenon known as priming. Priming occurs when people are exposed to certain words or images (in this case, Buddhist words) that then subconsciously influence their thinking or behavior.
For the experiment, 355 total study participants were divided based on their backgrounds: Western Christians, Westerners who practiced Buddhism and Taiwanese with a Buddhist/Taoist background. These three groups were broken down even further, with some participants being primed with religious words and others being exposed to nonreligious, yet still positive, words (e.g., “flower,” “sun,” “freedom”). After this priming, participants took tests designed to reveal any prejudices they may have against different ethnic or religious groups.
Across all groups, people who were exposed to words like “Buddha,” “Dharma” and “awakening” in a word puzzle showed fewer negative associations with African and Muslim people than those who were exposed to Christian or nonreligious words.
Participants who were primed with Buddhist words also scored higher on a test measuring prosocial behaviors. These effects were particularly pronounced among people who scored higher on tests measuring open-mindedness.
Prosocial behaviors are generally in line with the core values of Buddhism, including tolerance of different ways of thinking, universality and interconnection.
However, the researchers don’t mean to suggest that Buddhism is “better” than any other religion.
“What we really want to argue is that Buddhist concepts are associated with tolerance, across cultural groups,” Magalli Clobert, a post-doctoral student at Stanford and one of the study’s authors, told The Huffington Post. “It means that, at least in people’s mind, there is a positive vision of Buddhism as a religion of tolerance and compassion.”
Carolyn Gregoire is a Senior Writer at the Huffington Post, where she reports on health and wellness, psychology and human behavior, and brain science. She has discussed her work on MSNBC, The TODAY Show, and The History Channel, and has spoken at TEDxYouth and the Harvard Public Health Forum.
This article first appeared in http://www.huffingtonpost.com/.
If you make the following eight steps a consistent habit, you will have taken large strides towards compassionate communication.
1. Focus on the other person
Everyone loves to talk about them self. It is a natural instinct. However, if you wish to build trust and compassion in your relationships, it is more important that you begin with a focus on the other person. When you do this, you can develop a thorough understanding of them and their needs. This allows you to engage in conversation from a more informed position, thus improving the quality of the conversation.
2. Listen attentively
Listening is not an opportunity for you to prepare your response. If you are to be able to respond accordingly, you must first listen to what the other person has to say. When you listen, and you understand, you are in a better position to determine the appropriate response.
3. Do not rush to respond
When you rush to respond, you show that you have not really attempted to understand the other person. Wait until they have finished speaking to consider your response and take as much time as necessary to consider your response. If you feel you need a little more time to consider your response, say so. Allowing yourself the necessary time to respond is essential for compassionate communication. It demonstrates that the conversation is important to you and you want to give it the consideration it merits.
4. Speak well of others
Take the time to speak well of others, and be sincere about it. Doing so allows you to separate the person from the conversation or the behaviour. When you are in the habit of seeing the good in other people, you are more likely to approach conversations with compassion at the front of your mind.
5. Don’t take it personal
When you have to have difficult conversations, things will not always go as you had hoped. Remember that the other person has their own needs and preferences. These will, on occasion, prevent them from facilitating your needs. When you practice compassionate conversation, you realise this, and you accept that disagreements occur and they should not be taken personally.
6. Avoid assumptions
Assumptions are a major source of stress and conflict. You are not a mind reader, nor is anyone else. When another person does, or says, something which you disagree with; do not assume that you know their reasoning. Rather than make assumptions, you can politely ask them if they can explain. When you do this politely, most people will be happy to explain. If you cannot get an explanation, do the compassionate thing and accept that the other person must have their reasons.
7. Be yourself
Authenticity lies at the very core of compassionate communication. Compassion requires sincerity and you cannot be sincere when you try to be something, or someone, that you are not. Be yourself, and be true to your values and principles. As long as you respect other people’s rights to their own values and principles, you will be fine.
8. Seek opportunities to be compassionate
You do not have to wait for something major to happen before you can practice compassionate communication. In everyday life, there are many opportunities for you to practice your skills. When you do, you will soon become proficient. That way, when a major incident occurs, you will be ready to act with compassion.
If you want to improve your communication skills, check out How To Talk So Others Will Listen.
Compassionate communication requires you to make a real effort to understand other people and their needs. When you do this, you are able to build strong, healthy relationships based on trust, respect and understanding. Even when you find that you cannot build a relationship with someone, compassionate communication allows you maintain your respect for them. When you practice compassionate communication, you no longer feel the need to compete with others. Instead, you build respectful, collaborative relationships which offer support and synergy, thus helping you to achieve more than you could do otherwise.