How to Become More Empathetic and Compassionate

It is a difficult time. It’s hard to make sense of the senseless. Here, I am going to endeavor to share something of value without pointing directly at the current events that caused me to share them as a way to broaden the importance of this writing, making it applicable not only to today but also to future scenarios.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about our different projects. As we were talking, I shared the fact that I am not interested in technology in the same way I am interested in human potential, performance, growth, and transformation. Most of the time, when I write about sales or leadership, I am writing about something else. When I am writing about something else, I am writing about sales and leadership. My primary interests tend to permeate everything I do, and this subject is no different.

Piaget, the Swiss Psychologist who taught us much about how children develop, used an experiment to mark out some of the stages of growth. Piaget would show a child of, say, four years old, a square box. One side of the box would be red and the other blue. After showing the child both sides of the box, he would set the box in front of the child with the red side visible to them. Then Piaget would ask the child to tell him what color he was looking at from his side of the box. The child would respond, “Red,” the correct answer. Then he would ask the child what color he was looking at, and the child would answer, “Red.”

The lack of the child’s psychological development prevents them from recognizing that the person sitting across from them could see something different than what they see. By the age of seven, most children realize that the other person is looking at the color blue. They can take another person’s perspective.

In some communities in which I travel and study, this idea is “growing up,” something that increases your compassion.

Growth and Perspectives

One of the necessary components of growth and transformation is the ability (and willingness) to take another person’s perspective, especially their subjective and intersubjective perspectives. Your subjective experience is yours alone, but it is also shaped by your intersubjective experience, what you learn from your culture, an authoritative source of your beliefs, and your interpretation of what is good, right, and true.

You are looking at the side of the box that is red.

Throughout your life, you are going to bump into people who are looking at the blue side of the box. You might believe that they are looking at a different box altogether. Growth and transformation, as we are discussing it here, means recognizing, maybe for the first time, it’s the same box viewed from a different angle. A person who has a different subjective and intersubjective experience is sure to have a different view of things.

You often hear people talk about ideas like empathy, emotional intelligence, and self-awareness. Most of the time, the people who suggest that you should be more empathetic don’t understand what they are asking you to do. They are asking you to take another person’s perspective, working to understand their subjective and intersubjective truth. Compassion is something more than feeling their pain, something that’s difficult to do. It is sometimes best accomplished by reading novels and watching the kind of movies that cause you to tear up because you are overwhelmed by depictions of genuine compassion.

Human Effectiveness and Performance

The more perspectives you can take, the more effective you are going to be as a human being. The more perspectives you can take, the better your performance because you can see something from a different view, without believing the other person’s beliefs are false, invalidating or dismissing them, or being unable to communicate effectively with them.

One of the limits to your effectiveness is the inability to take another person’s perspective. What is even more harmful is believing that different beliefs and values somehow invalidate yours.

Remember, you are looking at a box with many more sides than the one you see. Instead of arguing that the box is red, try instead to understand how blue, orange, or green feels. By doing so, you increase your understanding, something that isn’t possible by trying to convince someone looking at the side that is blue that the box is red.

The long arc of history that bends towards justice is the story of our improvement through taking different perspectives and protecting people’s individual and collective rights, even when their viewpoint conflicts with ours, and though we still have many miles to go. A lot of our problems would be more easily solved if we would start by understanding another person’s perspective, the experiences that gave rise to it and taking these things into account in your actions.

In what condition do we find a man trying to buy cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill, a failed crime, and one with no victim? Does such a man not already deserve our compassion?

“America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great”. – Alexis de Tocqueville

Filed under: Mindset

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