What practical steps can we take to develop sensitivity to other people?
Some might be tempted to answer with a list of behaviors that you can learn: lean forward; say, 'Yes... uh-huh'; reflect; paraphrase; summarize; show unconditional positive regard; align metaphors with the other person; match body language, tone of voice...
I fell out with this approach when I started to teach 100 hour communication skills classes. I remember a male nurse I taught who had 'all the moves' but who sounded completely insincere. Something had to change!
To be sensitive to others you need to be emotionally available. That goes way beyond technique, so let's not settle for half- or quarter-measures!
How can I become more sensitive to other people?
When you ask yourself this question, you are entering territory that has been crossed by every trainee nurse, counselor, therapist, social worker, physical therapist, occupational therapist, life-coach or integrative therapist. And the list probably doesn't end there!
All those of us who work with people, particularly in the areas of health, education and personal growth have usually worked long and hard to develop our sensitivity to others.
What are some of the approaches the trainees in these fields of work use?
The first is to recognize, acknowledge, and attend to one's own personal needs. Those of us who choose to help others need to be very clear about our own motives. Without a doubt, our own pain is a strong motivating force that can drive us to want to help others. Be careful!
Unacknowledged and uncared-for, our own needs are the greatest barrier to becoming more sensitive to others.
Yet, our own needs - buried for years - are not necessarily easily recognized. They are unconscious. They exist outside of our awareness.
So the first step in developing our own ability to empathize is to bring our buried needs into our own awareness.
Be watchful of the ways you react to other people: to who they are; to how they act; to the things they say; to the values they express; to the political opinions they hold... in fact to anything that 'gets your goat' (as me ol' grandma used to say!).
You react to these 'petty tyrants' because they reflect back to you something that you've labelled 'unacceptable' and tried to disown.
Fritz Perls, who is called the father of American Gestalt therapy, said this:
"We live our lives as if our body is a house and our eyes are the windows of the house. I have news for you. Those windows are not windows. They are mirrors."
In other words, we see the world through the filters of our own beliefs, values and attitudes. And in a very fundamental sense, these are not our own in any really wholesome way.
We have learned how to see the world - mainly through strong childhood experiences - according to the norms of our particular culture, educational system, family and other significant people in our lives.
We've been told, 'Good boy...' or 'Bad girl...' and been praised or punished accordingly.
We don't need to be talking about abuse or neglect here. In any average family the process of molding the kids into model citizens creates hurts and resentments.
This puts some distance between who we are and our natural capacity to be joyful, understanding, exuberant and, above all, sensitive human beings.
We've become desensitized to our own hurts. We had to push them away, because expressing them began to feel dangerous. We need to address this if we are going to become truly sensitive to others. We need to become better at feeling - and accepting - our own pain.
It's a great idea to keep a journal of your reactions. Spend some time quietly recording, and reflecting on, the thoughts and feelings that these 'critical incidents' arouse in you. The idea is definitely NOT to judge the way you feel. Adding judgements like, 'I shouldn't feel this way...'; ' I wish I hadn't reacted like that...' and so on are part of the problem, not the solution!
Next, tune in to your own inner dialogue. What - or who - do you hear? What is your relationship with yourself like? When you talk to yourself, are you supportive or critical. Can you identify an inner judge and an inner victim? Do you begin to understand the Book of Laws that the judge uses to persecute the victim?
Write down exactly the words you use. Look at them, allow them to be. No dramas.
In providing yourself with a safe space to sit down and be with yourself unconditionally, you are learning how to provide that safe space for others.
But far more important than that in the short run, bringing these hidden aspects of yourself out into the light will help them dissipate. For a long time I've used an analogy of a demon-confronting nightmare for this kind of work. It's the kind of nightmare where once you stop and turn around, you realise you're being chased by a kitten, not a monster.
One of the things that will happen as you use your journal in this way, is that you will develop a broader and broader range of emotional shapes and colours, of feeling words, words that describe physical sensations in your body.
You should begin to react less and respond more. I understand respond to mean to have a measured and considered approach to issues that previously would have sparked unexpected and unwelcome thoughts or feelings. Things that would have riled you (or upset you, or made you fearful, jealous, resentful) no longer do so.
As you progress with this work, you will find that you have a quieter, more peaceful mind that finds it easier and easier to make constructive, creative space available to another person.
With my good wishes for your journey. The world needs more sensitive listeners.
Robert Fordham is the Owner/Manager of Deeper Coaching, a face-to-face and online coaching service.
Robert's approach to coaching developed out of 25 years of practicing and teaching integrative/energy medicine; his own personal development work and is influenced by meditation and indigenous wisdom, east and west.