58. Awareness of Others
When the pickpocket meets a saint, he sees only pockets.
Anonymous (appearing in all times and all places)
In this area we will first discuss skills that can help us understand others: listening, observing and empathy. These skills are of great value as they affect every aspect of social life. Two related topics will follow: the focus of attention and assessing others.
Listening is one of the main ways we become aware of the inner world of other people (what they want, think, feel, etc.). Listening seems straightforward but is, in fact, a sophisticated skill that can be developed by following these suggestions:
- Most importantly, really listen to others rather than using the time while they are talking to think about what to say next. If you need to think about what to say, you can take a short pause before responding. Your response will also be more meaningful if you really hear the other person first.
- It is important to acknowledge verbally or through body language (e.g. nodding) that something has been heard.
- Do not assume but check that you have understood others well by occasionally summarising or rephrasing what has been said.
- Attention is easier to maintain if you find a way to relate what the other is talking about to your own experience and interests (you are interested in stocks and shares, and somebody is talking about theatre – thought about investing in art?).
- Avoid mind reading and fortune telling (assuming that you know what the other thinks or will say respectively).
- Being open-minded also matters. This does not mean adopting the views of the other, but having the willingness to see things from their perspective (visiting does not mean staying).
- Questions can help if something is unclear but digging into what somebody is consciously or unconsciously avoiding, insisting on a disclosure, usually has the opposite effect.
- The distortions of one’s understanding are usually the result of adding something to what the other is saying. The following exercise can help you minimise this:
Bracketing: make a deliberate attempt to bracket your own assumptions, interpretations and expectations. Try, when listening, to take into account only what you hear. Do not assume that you know what the other person meant and refrain from making interpretations and jumping to conclusions. You can later compare the so obtained information with expectations and assumptions you had, and see if there are any differences. This exercise can help you avoid many misunderstandings and arguments.
You are a good listener if the other side feels understood emotionally as well as cognitively.
The focus of attention
What we pay attention to is also of great importance:
- The focus of attention can be on the content or on the person. It is important to decide what your priority is, as different foci require different skills. Listening, taking mental notes and memorising facts may be vital when focusing on the content, while empathy and non-verbal cues may matter more when focusing on the person. Being aware why somebody is talking also matters. For example, if the person seeks advice the focus should be on the content; if he wants to unload emotionally, the focus should be on the person. Giving advice in the latter case would miss the point – such mismatches are very common.
- The focus can also be widened or deepened. The former is about zooming out, getting as much information as possible in order to form a complete picture. The latter involves zooming in, focusing on selected information and ignoring the rest in order to go deeper or get a more detailed account (e.g. you may want to know about all guests at the wedding, or focus on one).
Face-to-face communication has two components: verbal and non- verbal, messages conveyed by facial expression and so-called body language (e.g. gesticulations). The body reflects mind processes, so paying attention to body language (especially if verbal statements seem inconsistent or incongruent) can provide you with additional information and clues. Research shows that the benefits of being able to read non-verbal cues include being better adjusted emotionally, more popular, more outgoing, and more sensitive.(1) There are a lot of misconceptions in this respect though (e.g. contrary to popular belief, people who are telling the truth are likely to look away and those who are lying may be looking into your eyes, as they believe that this will make them look more truthful). Alas, if a liar reads this, she may deliberately try the opposite! So, do not rely on what you heard or read but learn from your own experience, bearing in mind that not all people speak exactly the same body language.
Empathy is about emotional understanding – understanding experientially, rather than just cognitively. It is important for good relationships and it also enriches one’s life. We cannot experience everything ourselves, but if we can empathise, we can have an inkling about how something that we haven’t experienced directly feels. Empathy is different from sympathy though. Sympathy means feeling for others which is not the same as understanding how they feel. Also, attributing to the other person what you would feel in the same situation is not real empathy (e.g. you may hate shopping, others may love it). Practice helps to get it right.
Developing empathy: when you listen to somebody, try first to empathise with her, understand how she feels and what she experiences, without sympathising and projecting yourself in her situation. Then, focus for awhile only on facts in order to sense the difference between these two states.
The perception of others is often followed by assessing and/or judging them. This can be useful and sometimes even necessary. However, there are some things worth considering here:
- We have a natural tendency to make judgments quickly, which is why they can easily be mistaken (e.g. somebody may be overweight because of a health condition rather than self- indulgence; or wear a tie that doesn’t match because it is the only one he has, rather than due to bad taste). So when making judgments about somebody, it may be worthwhile checking if you are jumping to a conclusion prematurely (e.g. are you sufficiently aware of her circumstances or true intentions?).
- Our assessments are often coloured by our expectations. You are less likely to be disappointed if you assess others on the basis of their own qualities rather than your expectations.
- We don’t have to assess others all the time. In fact, being non- judgmental can be beneficial as it fosters compassion. The following exercise can help you free yourself from the habit of judging and develop compassion for others. This is, in many ways, similar to ‘Self-compassion meditation’.
Compassion meditation: close your eyes and relax. Bring somebody to mind and observe your arising thoughts and feelings. Open up (it is safe, this is only your imagination) and let go of any judgments, positive or negative (e.g. ‘He is nice’ / ‘he is boring’) as well as any positive or negative emotional reactions (attraction / anger). If you do this and remain open, you won’t feel nothing; you will feel compassion that arises from awareness that you two have something in common: being on a journey between birth and death. When you experience compassion, you can expand. Bring more people in; even the whole of humankind (bear in mind though that this can be tough going if and when you have strong negative emotions about somebody).
(1) Goleman, D. (1995) Emotional Intelligence. London: Bloomsbury, p.97.