The Hardest Thing to Learn

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

“What ticks you off?” we asked a recent group of managers and employees at a large corporate training.  One smiling woman vigorously raised her hand and proceeded to tell a story.  “I could not believe it!  I was at the deli to get some fresh olives when I saw a man reach his bare hands into the bin and start scarfing them down as he walked around the market!”  All of us empathized with how disgusted she must have felt.  “That’s a real appetite killer,” I said. Many workshop participants had similar stories of outrage and irritation.  A dignified man took umbrage to drivers who continue to use their cell phones.  Another kind looking woman reported she was almost hit by a driver as she crossed the street that morning.  “He was on his cell phone whipping around the corner and could have killed me!” she lamented.

In any room full of people we can churn up stories of offensive behavior.  We chime in with “that’s terrible” when we hear stories that trigger our anger and outrage.  Some people remain angry for days, weeks, months and even years.  Most of us become irritated when things do not go as we planned.  Our flight gets delayed or the secretary calls in sick and our boat gets rocked. Someone or something blocks our progress, disappoints or changes our world, and we fume.  In the workplace these outrages and indignities can fester, leading to stress claims, lowered productivity and even violence.

When our company enters a workplace to provide conflict resolution or anger management trainings, we find that most of the people we meet are kind, good and well meaning.  Yet many express their distress about office conflicts they find difficult to resolve.  Participants practice the role plays, take lots of notes, and laugh a lot.  Everyone seems to get the concepts until we get to the hard part.  The toughest part, the part most difficult to learn, and the thing most essential to conflict resolution–compassion.

Compassion–that word on I.Q. tests that even smart people have trouble defining.  Most people know it has something to do with caring about others.  We like to receive it but have trouble dishing it out.  This largely has to do with what psychology calls “the fundamental attribution error.”  We see our own failings and mistakes as situational.  “I didn’t get enough sleep last night so I forgot to bring the checkbook.”  But we see the failings and mistakes of others as signs of poor character.  That driver isn’t just in a hurry he’s “a maniac.”  We give ourselves a pass for wrongdoing but hold others accountable to a different standard.

Thomas Merton said, “compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.”  We see ourselves as separate and distant from the rude olive thief or the careless driver.  That emotional distance allows us to judge them as bad and different from us.  When we label them bad we don’t have to care or understand or even see them clearly.  It’s easy to stay angry, justifying our outrage with more examples of their imperfection.  We handicap our ability to resolve interpersonal conflict with so much social distance.  Stephen Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, writes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”   We increase our skill with people when we attempt to understand them better, listen more, and judge less.

Children of abusive parents are less likely to be abused if they show empathy for their abuser.  Children with high levels of empathy tend to be well liked and popular in school.  Police officers armed with empathy handle violent people far more effectively than those merely armed with a gun.  The founder of Nonviolent Communication, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg teaches you to express how you feel in a conflict without criticizing or blaming.  He also teaches  you how to receive information from others about how you are to them without collapsing into hearing blame and criticism.

When we get over ourselves, our amazing need to be right, we can make room for another’s view point.   Perhaps that olive thief is homeless, and hasn’t eaten for days.  Maybe he never learned manners, grew up on the streets, with no love.  Perhaps that driver on the cell phone is trying to help her lost child, or that speeding man has a wife in labor.   This greater understanding gives us information to resolve conflict, forgive, understand and feel happier.  It widens our view of the world and humanity.  It makes us smarter.