Monday, October 22, 2012

Get Gentle by Taking a New Perspective

Empire State Pigeon by ZeroOne, cc license
Exactly ten years ago I was preparing for my very first shift on the Contact Pittsburgh crisis and suicide hotline. Those first few shifts were frightening, thrilling, frustrating, rewarding, and many other roller coaster rides of emotion. As I relaxed into my empathy and listening skills over that first year, those weekly four-hour sessions became a sacred space for me. On the one hand it was challenging and heartbreaking work. However, putting myself in the shoes of the callers also gave me a break from my own shoes. It was utterly refreshing to take a break from all of my stuff and just hold someone else’s worldview and emotions for a while. I was hooked on empathy.

As I’ve worked on being more gentle over the past few weeks (and getting more sleep!) I've been able to pull out more of those skill that I honed on the hotline. The cornerstone of empathy and active listening skills is being able to see the world, a situation, through the eyes of another. As I feel my temper rise, I can catch myself, letting go of my emotions and perspective and taking on the point of view of another person. Usually, it’s the person directly contributing to my irritation (e.g. my spouse), but I’ve found that it also works when you take on the perspective of an innocent bystander (e.g. my toddler) or even an oblivious stranger (e.g. that guy I see waiting for the bus while I’m stuck in traffic with an agitated toddler). The key is just to take a break from yourself for a moment and get a fresh perspective. (Yes, this can also facilitate discussion, resolution, and all sorts of good stuff, but let’s save that for another post.)

So, how to put this into practice? When you notice that your temper is rising or you become aware that you are in a situation ripe for non-gentle reactions, remind yourself to take another’s perspective. Some folks use physical signs of their intention, like a wristband or piece of jewelry, as a reminder. I’m a fan of mantras and breath work. For this scenario, I go with: (breathing in) Out of me, (breathing out) Into you. Whatever works as a reminder for you will do (ooh - and do share if you have other ideas...).

The next step is to pick your target and take on his perspective. Imagine what he is seeing at that moment. Generate some curiosity about how he is feeling and notice the outward signs (facial expression, language, stance) that give you clues to his emotional state. Take a few moments to sit with this perspective and then come back to yourself, taking a moment to check in with your own feelings, both physical and emotional.

This is a good exercise to practice when you’re in a calm state so that it comes more naturally when you're stressed. Maybe, give it a go during dinner this evening or during your next innocuous grocery shopping trip?

As I’ve been writing this, I also remembered a cool TEDx Talk by the sociologist Sam Richards. He offers a radical, challenging exercise in perspective taking (but one you can do in the comfort of your home):

Taking a moment to see the world from another's perspective when you're feeling not-so-gentle, gives you a powerful way to take a breather while exercising your empathy muscles. Getting out of your own head and into someone else's is quite the trip - like astral projection, without the witchcraft - and lays important groundwork for moving through every day with empathy and compassion. Happy perspective taking - let me know how it goes!

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