Paul McAleer: Hi. You’re listening to Designing Yourself. My name is Paul McAleer.
Whitney Hess: And this is Whitney Hess.
Paul: Thank you for listening. This week we’re going to be talking about compassion, which is another very small topic that should take no time at all to discuss. And in fact we’ll probably be done in just a few minutes. That’s my guess, anyway.
I’m going to keep downplaying these because these are such big topics. And I like to swing for the fences with these. I mean, we’ve talked about fear. We’ve talked about everything big related to life. And compassion is up there, too.
So, I think what I want to start with is, I want to start with a question for you. What is compassion? What does that mean to you?
Whitney: Oh my goodness.
Paul: Again, an easy start.
Whitney: Throw me the easy ones.
Paul: Of course.
Whitney: Well, OK. I’m going to give you the thing that’s been on the top of my mind. But I’m sure by the end of this chat I’ll have redefined it for myself. But right now I have been spending quite a bit of time pondering the relationship between empathy and compassion because, as you may know, I’m kind of obsessed with empathy.
Paul: I did know that, I think.
Whitney: And a lot of the research that I’ve done over the past two years has started to lead me towards spiritual definitions of empathy. And what has come up more and more in a lot of the texts that I’ve read, it’s more often the word “compassion.”
And at first I thought that they were kind of synonyms. I knew that there was a slight difference between them. But I felt as though compassion is a term that’s been around longer, especially in the English language. So I thought I was just in my mind replacing the word “compassion” with “empathy” whenever I was reading it.
But I am starting to see that there’s actually a really different relationship there. And so my latest definition of compassion comes from my latest definition of empathy, which is empathy, the ability to internally feel the way someone else feels, imagine what it’s like either in your mind or feel it in your body, what someone else is experiencing.
Compassion is the desire to act based on your empathic feelings. That’s where I am now.
Paul: I agree.
Whitney: So, a desire to help someone else alleviate their suffering, I think that’s - and suffering is a loaded term that comes mostly from the spiritual texts that I’ve been reading lately. But pain, discomfort, dissatisfaction, obstacle - slot in the term that you’re most comfortable with. I think compassion is the desire to act to help someone overcome that, whereas, empathy is like the physical, emotional, mental sensation of vicariously experiencing someone else’s emotions.
Paul: Yeah. I am on the same page with you on that because the way I see compassion is that it is empathy plus, where empathy is getting to a point where you are able to really feel what somebody else is experiencing or going through or both, or stating. And you kind of take that in and you make it your own in a way.
And compassion is where you want to act on it. There’s this possibly a desire in you, a selfless desire, to then do something about that, about that pain, about that suffering that's happening in another person. And it applies to the self, too. And I’m sure we’ll come back to that, too.
But one thing I’m curious about with compassion is, is it something that you see related to only pain and suffering? Or can it be other things in people as well? And I ask because when I have this idea of what compassion is, I really do think about the pain and suffering angle, too. And maybe we need to explore what we mean by pain and suffering.
But I see that there, too. And that, to me, drives compassion. And then it is that desire to make things better, to make the world better by helping somebody else.
Whitney: So, ask your question again.
Paul: Is it only related to pain and suffering? Is that what motivates compassion in others?
Whitney: It’s interesting. Are you saying or could it be driven by positive things as well?
Paul: Sure. Could it be?
Whitney: Yeah. Gosh, that’s a really tough one because I feel as though we are programmed to improve upon the things that we see as being negative. I don’t see a lot of people creating businesses or hoping to volunteer or reaching out to help a friend to take something that’s positive and make it better.
I feel as though we’re drawn to the things that we see as being negative, and we work to try to make those go away, to solve a problem in someone’s life, to turn negative into a positive, to give someone a leg up. Acts of charity, acts of goodwill, seem to be around reducing pain and increasing opportunity, perhaps.
And so, I wonder to what extent compassion can be applied in a non-negative state. I’m thinking about a lot of the teachings that I’ve been reading recently that come out of Buddhism but that have been adopted to our modern way of living. And I’m thinking about one book that I’ve read for my coaching program called Essential Spirituality. And I’m pretty sure that I’ve mentioned it to you before.
It’s essentially a look at the seven practices that are considered the most important of all major religions and spiritual practices that are the common themes across them. And one of those seven is compassion. And the way in which compassion is discussed in that context is that it isn’t just the desire to act to take away someone’s pain.
But it’s talked about almost as though it’s general kindness, like doing things with kindness, speaking to others with kindness, treating oneself with kindness. And I actually have - I’m going to take it out from this little pocket that I have put away.
I didn’t even think about it when we started talking about this topic, when we decided that we were going to talk about compassion, funny enough. But I actually have this card that was laminated and given to me in the first session of my coaching program at New Ventures West.
And on one side of the card it says “wisdom.” And it has four attributes of wisdom. And on the flip side of the card it says “compassion” and there’s five attributes of compassion. And these are considered the two wings of Buddhism.
But New Ventures West doesn’t teach Buddhism. I don’t want to make it sound as though it’s in any way a religious or spiritually-driven program on the surface of things because it isn’t, even though deep down it really is. We don’t talk about Buddhism in class.
But the principles are certainly derived from it. And so, teaching the duality of wisdom and compassion is something that’s central to the program. And the way in which compassion has been defined - and I’ll just read them to you. And maybe this will take us somewhere.
The first thing that’s on this statement - and maybe I’ll take a photo of it and we’ll put it up on the blog post for this episode. The first statement is “They are another me.” And I take that to mean seeing everyone else as though they’re you. They’re as important as you. They are as in need as you. They are as worthy as you. And not seeing people as other, as I think a lot of times we are conditioned to do. Fear drives a lot of that.
But they’re not other. They are you. “I am them” is the second statement. So, not only looking at them do you see yourself, but looking at yourself you see them. “Embracing the suffering” is the third statement, and I take that to mean that suffering is a natural part of life. It’s something that we all experience. And again slot in whatever word makes you most comfortable.
It’s not suffering like - it doesn’t have to be tragedy, necessarily. It could just be the discomforts of working with someone that you just can’t connect with, the trials and tribulations of managing money, the crankiness of a newborn. These are all parts of our life, and they’re challenges that we overcome on a regular basis.
And embracing that is essentially saying that we all experience it, so recognize when someone else is experiencing it and how that relates to your own experience and how you can be a part of helping to resolve that for them.
Staying open, which I think is really what empathy is all about for me, cultivating an openness within yourself so that even if your experience is wildly different than somebody else’s you're able to be receptive to what their experience is and can imagine what that must be like, thus altering your perspective on who they are, what their motivations and attitudes are so that you don’t close yourself off to another way of life or another point of view.
And then the last statement is “basic goodness.” And that goes back to what I was saying about compassion in a lot of these texts in many ways being used just for general kindness, being good to one another. So, that’s what I think compassion encompasses.
And so, maybe you’re right that it isn’t all negative stuff, that there’s a lot of really positive stuff where compassion comes into play as well.
Paul: But I think you have a great point in that the desire within us really is to improve things that we see as negative, right? I mean, we’re not thrilled with situations that are not positive or are affecting people in a bad way. And we don’t respond well to pain and suffering in general.
And I don’t mean necessarily the actions that we take, but we feel something when we see it, or obviously when we have it ourselves. But there’s a reaction that we have. So, we don’t want that reaction necessarily anymore, so we want to make it better. And we want to make it better in ourselves as well as others.
And I love - all the statements, basically, that you said I agree with. And it’s funny, too, because one of my notes I have here is that compassion is hand in hand with wisdom. And really wisdom in that case - and I trust this is what the card says, or what it alludes to, at least, is around insight and consciousness and awareness, kind of that angle of it.
And then the compassion is, again, kind of being present with regards to sympathy for others and then wanting to do something about it. So I don’t necessarily see in those definitions anything that was really just a negative, making negatives better. But I think that’s an easy way for us to think about it and an easy way for us to act on it as well.
Because the positive stuff, yeah, as you say, we probably do want to act on the positive stuff. But it just makes more positive stuff, right? And that’s great, but there’s also that deeper desire to make things right or make things better for others.
And one of the things about compassion that sticks with me, too, is, again, the selflessness of that, right? Because if you look at it and consider what it entails, it’s really you giving yourself to somebody else, in a way, whatever actions you deem fit or want to help with.
But there’s not necessarily an expectation of, well now I’m going to get that same thing back from the other person. And that’s hard. I think that’s really hard because for me if I do something nice for somebody, historically I’ve kind of expected them to do something nice in return.
But that may not happen at all. And for me there’s attention there in that, yeah, it would be great if that person would then, as I say, return the favor or do something nice for me. But they may very well not do that. So, for me it’s a matter of then finding kind of that deeper satisfaction and feeling of happiness, helping somebody else and doing it without that expectation of anything in return as well.
Whitney: Well, I think it’s very interesting that you used that term “selflessness.” And it’s easy to relate it to altruism. And I think that’s how we like to think of it, that it’s the opposite of selfish. Selfless is when you’re not thinking about yourself and you’re doing it for someone else and it’s true and it’s honest and it isn’t to benefit you in any way.
And then selfish is only when you’re thinking about yourself, only when you really want it to benefit you in the end and you are the center of the world and everyone else is in service to you. I think that’s how we think about those words.
But when you break it down, selflessness, it’s the quality of the self no longer existing. And we’ve talked a lot about self and what self means in our talk on self-awareness. And when the self ceases to exist, what comes from it - and let me actually back up and say, what is the self?
We talked last episode about identity. And the self is this image of who we are that we become identified with, that we hold onto for dear life because it’s the definition that categorizes us, organizes us, puts us into a community, into a geography, into an industry, what have you. And it makes sense out of us.
And then when we have that, I feel as though we hold onto it for dear life because so much is changing around us all the time that if we can just have that sense of self, that we will continue to exist, we’ll continue to matter.
And selflessness, which I’ve heard you talk about many times before and kind of gotten the sense that you are working towards being more selfless, that you feel as though that’s something that is an area to work on for yourself, though of course when I think of you I think you’re already incredibly selfless. I don’t see you that way, but I get the sense that you are working towards being more selfless.
That, to me, means letting go of the self, letting go of this identification that you have with being the center of everything. And I think that that’s really where compassion stems from - this believe that I as an individual self don’t have the importance that I was led to believe, that schooling made me feel was - and society made me feel was what I was supposed to be developing in my life.
I don’t have to be the best champion, this financial magnate and famous whatever. I can be good. I can be caring. I can have my family. I can have the things that I need. And I can take care of others in a much more meaningful way when I let go of that image of who I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing and putting myself above others.
And that’s something that has been really central to my last couple of years because especially as an only child, a New Yorker who grew up around highly ambitious people who were constantly trying to get a leg up, climb the ladder, but themselves above others, compare themselves to the people around them, demonstrate their worthiness and whatnot, it was all about self-centeredness and selfishness.
And I don’t want to blame New York for that because it’s really not New York, but a lot of that is present in New York. And when you’re growing up in that it can be easy to become fixated with celebrity, with business, big business, with this idea that we’re supposed to make something of ourselves and gain recognition and always work towards developing a bigger and bigger image of ourselves in the world.
And it’s very easy to lose sight of giving to others and living for others, essentially, which is what I think compassion is. That’s not to say there is a lack of compassion in the environment that I grew up in or even necessarily a lack of compassion in business. I don’t want to paint things with that broad of a brush.
But I think that it’s harder to come by because of the value system that tends to run rampant in these environments. And as a result we become so isolated, protected, just trying to take care of ourselves that we become more and more detached from the people around us and it can be hard to reconnect and it can be hard to put our lives in perspective and relate what it is we’re doing to the greater good of our communities, our surroundings, our society.
Paul: Yeah. That’s something that goes along with business, too. And I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about business because it’s just not that interesting to me. But it’s almost been built to be something that’s almost dispassionate. And what I’ve seen folks in UX in particular, because that’s the industry I’m in and we’re the best, rah-rah-rah, is really trying to bring that around and bring that very person-centric idea back into it because we feel that that’s something - part of is that it’s the right thing to do.
And by coincidence it also makes good business sense. I mean, that’s kind of the beauty of it. But I see that what you said about kind of concentrating on oneself and becoming detached is the same thing that can happen to a company, too. It can become very self-absorbed, make tons of money and then not have any wisdom or insight or compassion as well for people in the environment around that company or how it affects people who interact with it and things like that.
So, I see that as kind of going either way. You can talk about a person that way. You can talk about business that way, too. But I’ve definitely talked a lot about selflessness and how I see that and selfishness as the opposites. And I’m really struggling and working on finding kind of this middle way between the two.
And I appreciate that you think I’m pretty selfless right now. I think I’ve sided that way for most of my life. And I’m actually working to be a little more selfish now, trying to steer in that direction a little more because I feel I’ve done it almost to the point where I was detached in a lot of things.
And it wasn’t that I was without compassion because I certainly feel that I had that. I definitely didn’t have enough wisdom compared to where I am now. And of course that’ll keep improving over time, probably. But really when it came to compassion with myself, boy, that was pretty much not there. I mean, it just really wasn’t.
And you hear echoes of this in our previous talks where I wouldn’t say I’ve beat myself up over things, but I’ve been hard on myself and you’ve called me out on that a few times. And it’s true. I still kind of am. And we’re all our own worst critics, etc.
But even with those things, I am working to be less judgmental with myself and just be a little more compassionate. And that takes understanding and that takes wisdom and it takes time as well. It’s not something that’s just easily flipped overnight. So that’s something I’m absolutely still working on, too.
And it’s funny because when it comes to compassion of the self and compassion with other people, again I think it’s another instance where, at least for me, it’s been easier to be compassionate with other people than myself. And part of that is, I think, due to the others and that idea of others that you brought up as well.
And that’s something I think I had first read - I think it was from Tara Brach, I think. But she - I’m going to just give it to her because she’s awesome anyway. But she had spoken about how everybody that you encounter in the day is this fully-formed person, too.
And they have their own hopes and dreams and desires and pain and suffering. And they have all of these things, too. And they’re carrying those around with them at that same time you are, too. So, the interaction level may be almost nonexistent. It might be somebody that you see walking down the street as you’re driving by. It might be somebody who’s the cashier at a store. It might be somebody who is asking for money as you walk down the street. But they are full people, too.
And that’s another one of those things where when you say it out loud it sounds really silly because, sure, everybody’s a person and everybody’s got all this stuff with them. But when I really started to take that in and sit with that and, frankly, just kind of look around at stoplights and look at everybody, it gave me just such a different perspective.
Like, all these people are just out there living their lives and doing what they need to do or what they have to do or what they want to do. And there’s so much that’s wrapped up in that that I will never know. And isn’t that amazing?
And yeah, there’s billions of other people on this planet, billions. And they are all fully-formed people. And that’s pretty amazing stuff, too. I don’t want to just leave it in the, wow, this is all pretty amazing stuff. But it is pretty amazing, you know?
So, for me part of that compassion with others started by realizing, hey, others are people, too and not just person on the street, actor number 029 that happens to be walking by at that time of day when I’m walking or what have you.
And when I started to see other people as people, well that led me to be generally more compassionate and open to the idea of interacting more with strangers, for instance, which ties into introversion and social awkwardness, too.
So, there’s a lot that’s wrapped up in it, and it’s not just a matter of, in that case, alleviating one’s pain or somebody else’s pain and understanding it because I may never understand these people’s pain. I may never hear about it. But acknowledging the fact that it does exist and everybody has it to some degree, that’s been very helpful for me.
Whitney: Well, I think that you illustrate the point of the importance of seeing things from other people’s perspectives because isn’t it interesting that what I had remembered was that you were trying to go from selfish to selfless when you’re really going from selfless to selfish?
Paul: That’s right.
Whitney: And that was probably my mind’s classification of selfish being bad and selfless being good. And so even though we had discussed you going in the other direction, my mind puts those two things away in their little boxes. And then I think, oh, he’s taking himself from the negative to the positive.
But from your perspective based on your life experience, selfish is the thing that you need to be that’s good for you, that’s better for you because you’ve been putting yourself, perhaps, in situations here you haven’t taken the care of yourself that you’ve deserved. And you’ve been too selfless. So that selflessness in your case is more of a negative.
I’m sure that there’s a lot of grey area here, of course, and I don’t mean to create too much of a dichotomy between the two because I think that they go hand in hand. But it just goes to show that when you’re observing someone’s behavior and they’re behaving either selflessly or selfishly, it’s easy for us to put a value judgment on whether they’re behaving in a good or a bad way based on our own experiences.
But the reality is that you need to understand someone’s context in order to know whether they’re doing a good or a bad thing for themselves. And doing it for themselves is what matters more than how it’s affecting you. And I think that that’s really where compassion comes in, because people are motivated by things intrinsically to themselves that are very challenging for us to see and understand unless we put the effort into looking inside of them and accepting whatever is in there.
So, the friend that you had the disagreement with or in many people’s cases a sibling that you can have no relationship with over the course of years because of a misunderstanding, because they behaved in some way or they said something that you took to be so negative and against you or against the way that you would have done things without recognizing what was motivating them and what was behind that.
Were they perhaps doing something that was really good for themselves? Even though you may have taken it negatively, and perhaps it even had a negative consequence on you, in the end compassion is about recognizing that other people’s behaviors are motivated by their own attitudes and their own needs and that that may have a negative consequence on you.
But that negative consequence is temporary. And the positive consequence of their behavior might be much longer lasting for them, beneficial for them. And so you being able to experience and embrace whatever consequences come your way due to their actions is worthwhile.
And I think that that’s what embracing the suffering on my card really means. You said something that’s really important, that compassion isn’t just about alleviating someone’s suffering. I think that that’s when we start to identify with the self, that we’re the savior, we are the hero, that it’s our role to take away someone’s pain, someone’s discomfort.
And that’s not really compassion. That’s more driven by the self than not. It’s saying I have a strength. I have a power, an ability, that the other person doesn’t have. And what they’re experiencing makes me feel icky and I want it to stop.
So I’m going to interrupt what they are experiencing by exerting my will, and I’m going to take it away from them. And that presumes that we know what someone else needs. And it presumes that we understand that what they’re experiencing feels the same way to them that it does to us when in reality compassion is about understanding the way it feels to them and then learning how to feel that way for them.
And so, one of the things that comes up in coaching a lot is it is not your role as a coach to make someone’s problems go away. And I’m so drawn to this because as a consultant I’m brought in as an expert and expected to solve the problem, to fix whatever is broken. And I’ve done it so many times.
And I love the accolades in the short term. But the reality is it’s just a Band-Aid because I didn’t understand in any real depth what the organization really needed. And because they didn’t solve their own problem, whether it be an individual or a team dynamic issue, they didn’t solve their own problem.
They don’t have full ownership of it. And therefore when it arises in the future they’re not going to be able to do anything about it. And so, all I did was put a Band-Aid on that’s going to fall off as soon as I walk out the door.
And this idea that instead of solving other people’s problems and fixing other people’s obstacles or whatever, that is a role that we often take on as consultants. And I know that I’ve taken on that role as a friend as well. I’m always the person there with my two cents about how to make other people’s problems go away regardless of whether I have any experience in the area.
I’m not proud of it, but that’s just kind of how I’ve always been. Instead, coaching teaches you how to just sit in someone else’s suffering, just be there. And my coaching program in particular uses this term to be a container for someone else’s suffering, just being there to hear it, to experience it with the other person, to provide a safe space in which it can be experienced and shared and not feel the need to make it go away.
And one example of this is if someone else is crying. We are so quick to get up, put a hand on someone’s shoulder, take them into an embrace, offer them a tissue. We think we’re being compassionate when we do that. We think that we’re offering our kindness, we’re demonstrating that we care, that we understand their pain.
But what we’re actually doing is saying, stop-stop-stop. Here’s the tissue to dab away the tears. Let me take you in an embrace so that I no longer have to see you cry. And it sounds harsh to put it this way, and I really didn’t like it when I first saw that this was kind of the encouraged behavior to not offer the tissue, to not take the person into an embrace if they’re crying.
I didn’t like it. I thought that it was unfeeling. And I thought that it was some way of maintaining professionalism. But it isn’t. it’s actually allowing the other person to experience the full arc of their emotions.
And they will come to the end on their own time. You just have to sit there and experience it with them. When they’re ready to dab their tears away, they’ll grab a tissue. When they’re ready to stop crying and be held, they’ll go in for a hug. But to interrupt that process essentially stunts someone’s growth for experiencing their own emotions and coming to the end of it and getting it out and perhaps having learned something from it.
I’m using this crying as a kind of an oversimplification, maybe, of one expression of that suffering.
Paul: No, that’s a really good example because I think that I would be also inclined to help that person stop crying. And I’m wondering a couple of things. First of all, when it comes to helping others, how much does ego come into play with this? I mean, you’re talking about the self kind of stepping in and wanting to fix things. And we’re kind of dancing around the idea of somebody fixing all the problems, right?
And when you see a problem you want to fix it. So, if somebody’s suffering you want to fix it. If somebody’s crying you want to fix it, that type of thing. And there’s something that’s very powerful in just allowing that experience to happen and not disrupt it in any way or interrupt it in any way.
And for some reason my mind also connected it to usability testing because -
Whitney: I love that.
Paul: Because in those moments people are - boy, geeky - people are experiencing things. And when you’re moderating it you can’t interrupt. You don’t want to interrupt. You shouldn’t interrupt, in fact. And people will ask for help. You can’t give it to them. It’s really about observing and noticing, which you have to do, but letting that experience go and letting it be and watching it.
And it’s not in the service - I mean, that context is a little different. It’s for science. But it’s not in the service of being dispassionate or anything like that. It’s really to observe. And that’s where I see the parallel.
And it’s not necessarily observation that’s the goal there. I would think the goal - well, maybe it is for some people. Maybe it is observing and seeing how other people’s emotions are displayed. I mean, definitely when you think about kids and growing up that’s modeling and that’s how they start to understand this stuff more and get a feel for what happens.
But even for adults, seeing different reactions and different experiences, well, we start to become a little more uncomfortable with that in general maybe, sometimes. This is a big blanket statement. But sometimes we do. I mean, we kind of get locked in our ways, right? And this is the reaction I expected. And it’s not happening. Why is it not happening, or why is it happening? And we just kind of lose that compassion in those moments.
Whitney: Yeah. The openness, the ability to just sit with it and to see where it goes and to not pre-define how it’s supposed to be, how it’s supposed to end and what our role in it is supposed to be, I love that you brought up usability testing. I think that it is a perfect example of how this applies in our work.
And in fact I’m immediately reminded of the late, great Randy Pausch, who I was very lucky to have as a professor at Carnegie-Mellon, who taught me how to conduct usability tests in this Programming Usable Interfaces class that I took as part of my HCI Master’s. Actually, I was an undergrad at the time, I think.
And when he first taught us how to conduct a usability test, he told us that the engineers in his lab - he ran the ETC, the Entertainment Technology Center - where they were building a lot of really amazing platforms, experimental platforms that brought arts and technology together.
But engineers were writing a lot of these programs. And he required everyone to conduct usability tests. It was not just something that a HCI person did. UX didn’t exist at the time. But it wasn’t just the role of the usability analyst to do the usability test. It was everyone on the team’s responsibility.
And he said that when he directed his engineers on how to conduct usability tests, he required them to sit next to their participants but they had to sit on their hands. And they couldn’t take their hands out from under them when they were conducting usability tests because they so very badly wanted to point to the screen or move the mouse or gesture in some way.
And what that would do was put an end on whatever path the user was going down on their own. And he wanted his engineers to see what the full experience would be for another person as though they were not there. So they weren’t allowed to speak and they weren’t allowed to gesture in any way.
And that allowed these engineers, and of course usability analysts, designers and all the other members of the product team, to be open and to fully observe and to not interrupt any one person’s full experience.
And I think that it’s what happens after your urge to interrupt that is really special, that most people never get to, because their discomfort with emotion, with pain, with dissatisfaction, whatever, is so great that it overwhelms their senses and they stop the experience from happening for the other person.
And they tell themselves - we tell ourselves, I’ll own this, too - that that’s compassion, that we are just ending the person’s suffering. But true compassion is being able to sit with it through its entirety and let it run its full course.
And I’m seeing the connection, and thank you for making that connection, between observing usability tests and just seeing where the person goes just like sitting with a person and letting them cry until they stop on their own. They need to get it all out.
And I think that there’s something really to be said for recognizing that we have the ability to wait until another person is fully through their experience that gives both them an opportunity to experience things to a greater extent than other people probably allow, and it gives us an insight that other people probably don’t ever see because our instinct is to end it.
And I’m reminded now of a woman who I knew who had a very interesting interview technique when - she was one of the hiring managers at a company that I worked for. And when candidates would come in and she would ask them a question, when they had finished their answer, rather than ask the next question on her interview list, she would just sit there and pause and smile.
And I found it very unnerving when she was interviewing me because that’s weird. And it feels socially awkward when it’s happening. And you’re thinking to yourself, does this woman just not have good social sense? Doesn’t she realize that I’m done?
But people are compelled to fill in the silence. And as a candidate, then you just start talking. And you’re saying the things that maybe no one else has given you the opportunity to say because you said your packaged answer and they checked off their box and it was the expected answer, and so now they’re moving on to the next question.
But when you take that pause, when you don’t expect the answer to be finished, when you don’t expect someone else’s experience to be finished and you allow them to experience it to the fullest extent and be there for them in silence as an observer while it’s happening, you never know what might blossom out of that that benefits both you and them.
And I think that that’s where the compassion really lies. And I’m seeing it applied to all these different contexts.
Paul: So, is there a particular point when it crosses over from being perceived as compassionate, perhaps, to being perceived as a jerk, like not stepping in and letting that happen and not assisting? Or is that too severe a shift from going from one extreme to another?
Whitney: I wonder, you know? I’ve asked myself that as well, and I think that to some extent it comes in with your own body language that there is a way to express your shared sorrow. There’s a way to express your unease due to their unease without interrupting someone else’s experience.
There’s a way to politely pause with a smile or with a look of interest, a raised eyebrow or a kind but not disengaged face. But I think self-awareness comes into play big-time here in knowing what that posture, facial expression, tone, whatnot really should be for the given situation, because I take your point.
If you have a look of disinterest, disconnection while you are giving the person the opportunity to fully experience whatever they’re going through, then they start - then they’re taken out of their experience just as much because now they’re thinking to themselves, why the hell is this person being so heartless?
But there’s a way, I think, and this is tough stuff. Maybe this is advanced-level compassion here. But there is a way in which you can express just how connected you really are to the person without words and without interruption, without gesture, that helps them to see that you’re still there and you’re still fully present in the moment with them. But they’re in the lead and this is their experience, not yours.
Paul: But it’s also a shared experience. I mean, you’re there. I mean, it’s something that you are experiencing, too. So, I guess it does come down to the nuances. I mean, I’m saying I guess because I’m not sure if that’s really where it ends. But it comes down to the nuances of the body language of the conversation and the conversational notes and all those things that kind of would tip somebody off and basically say, hey, I’m ready to proceed or I’m back in this experience and I’m back now or what have you, just returning to the present and being there with somebody.
It’s hard because I’m really torn on when to interject. And I don’t know if that’s my ego talking or not either. It could be.
Whitney: So, what do you think, then, are ways that people can become more compassionate?
Paul: Just in general?
Whitney: Absolutely. I mean, there’s compassion in the workplace. There’s compassion with family and friends. But I wonder, are there ways in which this can be learned? Is it something that you just have or you don’t have? Or can people learn how to cultivate this?
Paul: NO, I think people can learn how to cultivate it. And one place where I think it starts is with the idea of hate, which is a very strong word. And if - goodness. I mean, it’s the whole love your enemies type thing, and that’s clichéd stuff. And I don’t want to retread that too much.
But one of the things I do is really strive to avoid hate because to me that comes from - at least for me it comes from a place of almost no compassion at all and possibly ignorance and misunderstanding. It’s such a broad topic, but working towards minimizing it is something that I see as a good start.
That’s one thing I feel. I think the other big thing that I keep in my head really is seeing other people as full people, honestly. That’s been such a thing for me, and not just names on a screen or just random people one interacts with. I mean, they’ve got their stuff, too. And you don’t know how much they’re working through or not.
And the other thing, too, is that they may not be at the same level of awareness that you are, or they may be way better or - eh, better. They may be way different than you are on that stuff, too. So, they may be extremely into themselves and understand what’s going on, or they might not at all.
And all that is totally acceptable and good. I mean, they’re still people, and they still have their stuff with them. I don’t think that people are existing in this world without compassion kind of by default. I think it’s there by default. Something that I’m - one of the many things I’m working on with regards to this, and I think it also applies into cultivating it, is reaching back to some stuff the Dalai Lama has written and spoken about about compassion.
And he stresses that in some cases it’s tied up with desire and attachment. It starts to get really - it’s not splitting hairs, but it’s putting finer points on this topic because when it is - when there’s that desire to make things better, well, you might want to examine why that’s there at all.
What’s feeding that desire? Is it the self? Is it the ego? Is it selfishness or is it maybe selflessness? I’m not sure. And then attachment, too. The way I see that coming into play is really more around the idea of things and the idea of fixing things that we’ve brought in, too.
I mean, I think having an awareness of what’s going into your compassion and possibly the desire to be compassionate as well, I think that’s kind of where it starts. And it’s not always immediately apparent stuff. It’s not stuff that necessarily just bubbles up to the surface and magically everything’s better.
I mean, for me it almost was that way with the others and that idea. But just starting to see other people as people - and then also the thing we haven’t quite touched on yet is really compassion with oneself. I mean, it starts there, right?
I mean, all of this stuff starts with oneself. And if there are parts of you that you dislike or hate, well, why? Why do you hate those parts? I don’t know. Are there parts of yourself that you do not like or hate?
Whitney: Oh my goodness. There’s so many.
Paul: Yeah. I mean, I’ve got that, too. And I trust a lot of people do. And how you react to that is entirely up to you as well, right? Because, again, hate being a very strong word, but just having some sort of - just giving that part of you a break and being compassionate and working towards understanding on it, that’s huge. That’s huge to me.
Whitney: Well, the thing about hate is that it is not the opposite of love. It is just as strong of an emotion. It is just as strong of a connection. And it has total emotional involvement that when you find yourself hating someone or something, I think that it is in many ways a cue that there’s something really powerful there that needs to be explored.
I’m immediately reminded of the quote by - who was it now? Oh my gosh. It just popped right out of my head. Oh, it was Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, he said I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.
Paul: Yeah, totally. Totally.
Whitney: And that for me is a reminder that the things that we don’t like in others are either things that we don’t fully understand because we really haven’t gone out of our way to develop empathy for that person and understand their motivations and their attitudes to better explain their behaviors and the reasoning behind them.
But it also illustrates for many of us the things that we really don’t like about ourselves. And there are so many quotes that encapsulate this, but what you hate in others is the shadow within yourself. You spot it, you’ve got it. There are so many of these really wise sayings in history that are about essentially the discomfort that you feel about another person truly being the inner discomfort that you have with yourself.
And there are so many things that we all don’t really like about ourselves, and that’s pretty normal. Some of us, more things than others. But a lot of times we’re as unaware about the things that we don’t like about ourselves as we are as unaware about the things that we do like about ourselves.
And it takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness to recognize what’s working for you and what isn’t. and that often drives your ability to be open and responsive to what someone else demonstrates and how someone else carries themselves.
When you’ve done a lot of self-reflection and self-development, you’ve come to realize just as you said in the beginning of this chat that you’re just like everyone else. We all have our hurdles. We all have the places that we came from that may have had their ups and their downs.
We’ve all had really big challenges in our lives of different flavors. But in the end we’re all here to better ourselves, to be the best we can be. Some people may express that in ways that we don’t immediately understand. We may think that they are lazy, that they are a waste of space, that they are not contributing to society. There are those things that we see.
But it’s amazing how when you get to know people better that you can better understand their perspective and the way that they’re trying to design their life so that they can achieve what they consider to be most important within this short period of time that they’re given on earth.
So, it does require a tremendous amount of looking inside of yourself before you’re able to be open and look inside of other people and accept what you have there, because so much of compassion for the self isn’t just seeing what’s inside of there but accepting it and saying, you know what? That’s a part of me and it’s all good. That’s who I am.
And this is not negative and positive, bad or good. It’s just me, and I’m going to work with it and I’m going to embrace it. And that allows you to do the same for others. And I think that it’s when we expect ourselves to be perfect and we expect that other people want us to be perfect that we tend to expect perfection from others.
And that gets in the way of us being truly kind and giving and available for other people because no one is perfect. We certainly aren’t. we can’t expect other people to be. And if we have those unreasonable standards for ourselves, if we allow that inner critic to keep yapping, yapping, yapping inside our heads and not put it in its place and not recognize that that isn’t who we really are, it’s just the result of some bad conditioning, wherever that may have come from, but put it aside and allow ourselves to really just be who we are, whatever that is, and live with it and work with it and embrace it and enjoy it, it becomes a lot easier to accept other people for who they really are.
And I’ve found that myself quite a bit, that my need to judge other people was something that I always hated about myself and I never could really figure out how to be less critical. And I blamed a lot of other people in my life for making me that way. But only when I stopped being so critical of myself, and it’s taken a long time and I’m still walking down that road, but only when I was more loving and gentle with myself did that critical voice inside my head about other people finally dissipate.
Paul: I totally understand, totally agree. I’m on that path myself, and it’s funny when you spend so much time working on yourself that it really changes the way you interact with others. It’s just, that goes hand in hand so much. I mean, I love that.
And I’m going to throw the question back at you, too. How does someone become more compassionate? What are Whitney Hess’ five steps to becoming more compassionate?
Whitney: You know, I don’t know that there are five steps, and I feel as though my answer is a dissatisfying one. But I also think that it’s the truth. So, take it for what you will. But I honestly think the only real path towards greater self-acceptance and greater compassion is the same one. And I hate to say it, but I think it’s meditation.
And meditation sounds funky and it sounds New Age-y, and it sounds boring, and it sounds almost trite at this point because it comes up in a lot of context. But what it is, if you break it down and you don’t call it meditation and you don’t prescribe any one way of doing it, if you just think about what it is, it’s literally sitting in one place and allowing yourself to not think about anything.
And if you do that even for 10 minutes a day, you’ve achieved so much. You have taken a break, which so many of us don’t do. You have spent some time alone, which many of us don’t do. You have given your overactive mind and imagination some well-deserved time off. You’ve allowed yourself to exist in the present moment without obsessing over what happened in the past or planning what’s going to happen in the future or worrying about what’s going to happen in the future, just being there in that moment, feeling your body, being present, being connected to the ground that you’re sitting on, the chair that you’re sitting on, feeling the sensations running through your body.
In that 10 minutes or 30 minutes, however long you choose to sit there, you are just being. You’re just being with yourself. And thoughts are going to come in, judgments, criticisms, worries, things that you forgot to do, things you want to remember to do, solutions to the problems you’ve been trying to solve at work or at home, whatever.
Those things are going to flood your head and then you’re going to let them go. And that act of letting thoughts come in and letting them go and not attaching to them and not defining yourself by them but just being there and recognizing that you as a human being continue to exist when you aren’t thinking, when you aren’t moving, just being, it becomes over time a lot easier to just be with someone else.
And when we were talking earlier about feeling this compulsion to fix things, to stop the pain, to make it all go away, to have the answer, we don’t feel the need to do that as much when we can just sit in whatever is.
And a lot of people call meditation sitting. It’s kind of a more secular way of describing it. And that’s what it really is, sitting in the present moment. And when you can do that for yourself, over time you develop the ability to do that for others. And I think that that’s where empathy stems from, the openness to just sit in someone else’s experience and allow it to become your own experience as well vicariously, and then to sit in someone else’s suffering and not have to act.
But that compassion can be the act of sitting there in it with them rather than making it go away. I think it’s a very powerful thing. I think it transforms your relationship to yourself, your relationship to other people.
And I’m only beginning to see the very tip-tip-tip of this. So I don’t want to make it sound as though I have any deep experience in this because I don’t. The reality is that this is brand-new stuff for me. But even with having just done this for a few months, and I don’t even remember to do it every day, just the little introduction to meditation that I’ve had has completely changed everything.
So I can only imagine what it will be like after 30 years of doing it 30 minutes a day. I think that I will be a much more relaxed, enlightened, kind, open, gentle, loving, connected human being.
And I think I’m going to be proud of what I’ve given of myself in the time that I’ve been on this planet where currently I’m always questioning if I’ve done enough, if I matter enough, if I’m giving enough. I think that a lot of that self-doubt disappears when you’ve found how to really root yourself in the present moment and being kind to yourself, being kind and compassionate to others. I think meditation is the way.
Paul: Yeah. I don’t disagree with you on that. And one of the fun things that I’ve been experiencing a little tiny bit - and I don’t know if you have either, so I want to swap notes with you - is getting to a point in meditation where when I hear my own voice I’m questioning where it’s coming from.
I know we’ve talked a little, we’ve touched a little on this idea of who is speaking and who is observing and the like. But I’ve started kind of experiencing that a little during meditation, and wow, that’s freaky. And it’s very exciting, too, because there’s the narrator that - at least for me, the narrator that I have with me every day is there with me when I’m meditating, too.
And it passes in and out. And sometimes it’s there and sometimes I’m able to let it go a little easier. It’s weird then to think about, OK, well who’s saying that? Who’s talking? Is that me? Is that a construct? I mean, it comes down to all that wonderful, heady stuff about the self being a construct and we’re all connected and all that wonderful stuff. And that is really cool, fun stuff. I mean, it really is.
Whitney: And I feel as though when you recognize that that voice is something other than you and you are that present, conscious, breathing thing that’s underneath those voices, I think that it becomes a lot easier to recognize that there is something universal that exists within the core of you that also exists within the core of everyone else.
And their wacko behaviors and attitudes and speech and thoughts and ideas and all the things that you may judge as being different than you suddenly disappear because under all of it they have the core as well. And it’s the same thing that you have, and it connects all of us. And I think what is really crucial to consider when we talk about compassion is the idea that it is not something that you give to others selectively.
Paul: That’s right.
Whitney: This is not the people who deserve your compassion or not. It is universal. And if you are not giving it freely to yourself and to all others, then you’re really not giving it at all. And I’m immediately reminded of the four immeasurables, which is one of the components of Buddhism. Sorry to bring it up again.
But it’s these four sayings. May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness. May all beings not have suffering and the causes of suffering. May all beings never be without the supreme bliss, free from all suffering. May all beings live in great equanimity, free from all attachment and aversion.
And I’m so drawn to those saying because it means everyone, me and my friends and my colleagues and the strangers and even the people that I cannot stand, they deserve compassion and happiness and an end to their suffering just as much as anyone else.
And quite frankly unless we all have alleviated suffering in our lives, then none of us have. And I feel so drawn to that. And I think that there is something that is really central to believing that everyone deserves this equally that allows you to give it freely to others.
Paul: I agree. I absolutely agree. Everybody is suffering, and it’s not - on the surface, sounds pretty depressing maybe. But it’s also true, and therefore why would we not want to help people if we were so inclined to do so? Why would we not want to alleviate that suffering? Without putting the ego in it, but just to have less suffering in the world in general, that would be lovely.
But also acknowledging that it is there and it will always be there, too. But it’s something we can do. We can make a difference, and we can do it with ourselves, too.
Whitney: And what a great way to live.
Paul: Absolutely. I agree.
Whitney: Well, I feel reinforced by a lot of things that you’ve said today. And it makes me feel like I’ve been on a good path and I’m very pleased to know that this is something you’ve been going through yourself and that we feel so similarly about it. And I hope that other people get something really positive about what we’ve talked about.
And I would love to hear people’s thoughts on all this, because this is - it ties in a lot of the other topics that we’ve talked about in a way that I don’t think I fully expected going into it. And I really look forward to people sharing their input on this one because I think that we have a lot more to explore.
Paul: I agree. And it’s been a wonderful conversation and so thought-provoking and so wonderful. So, thank you so much again, Whitney. This has been good.
Whitney: Thank you, Paul. Thank you. And thank you to everyone for listening. As you know, we are always here to receive your feedback, your thoughts, questions, ideas for upcoming shows. So please do get in touch with us. What are all the ways people can get in touch with us?
Paul: I’ll start with the super-secret email that nobody uses. I love it. It’s email@example.com. But the more common ways are to visit our website at designingyourself.net. Tweet at us. We love Twitter. Both of us are fully addicted to Twitter. The show, you can Tweet at designingyou, designing Y-O-U. I’m on Twitter at PaulMcAleer, and bonus points if you spell it right without looking at it. And Whitney is at WhitneyHess on Twitter as well.
Whitney: Well, thanks to everyone for listening. We will be with you again next week for a topic yet to be defined. So maybe you can give us your ideas and help us pick what comes next.
Paul: That’s right. We’re open.
Whitney: We’re very open.
Paul: Thanks for listening, everybody. Take care.