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3 Steps to Opening Boxes and Wholeheartedly Embracing the Contents

Shelves stacked with boxes

We define people by boxes. Our house is a box; car is a box; job title is a box; salary is a box; skin color is a box; gender is a box; and on and on and on….

The obvious answer then is: Think Outside the Box. Except that’s unoriginal…and wrong. People who advocate ‘outside the box’ ignore the reality that how we organize information matters, especially when referring to people. Categories carry consequences.

Occasionally someone will say, “I don’t see skin color ” or gender or ability or whatever. While the sentiment is lovely, I want to smack them in the mouth. Okay yes, I know…that wasn’t nice, but it’s true. You can’t erase labels simply because you want to pretend they don’t exist. Of course you see the categories. Every single person in your world fits into some kind of mental box.

A wise person doesn’t try to ‘think outside the box’; they recognize the categories and delve further into them with curiosity. Whether you talk about better understanding people or problems, the solution can be found by looking inside the box and noticing how it relates to the contents of other boxes.

Don’t ignore the container; get more familiar with the contents. 

The goal of any awareness training — most commonly racial awareness or disability awareness — is for the learners to gain a greater understanding of the lived experience of a person within a given category. This is valuable, yes? The problem lies in that you have to chase after understanding each individual category. It’s like playing whack-a-mole. Awareness training for every category will consume all available time for actually getting anything done. Plus then we hear people complain, “Every group thinks they are special. Now we have to attend an ‘awareness training’ for everyone.” And they would be right.

The more efficient and effective alternative is EMPATHY TRAINING. We used to think empathy was an innate characteristic that was stronger in some people than others; it couldn’t be taught. Researchers have now shown that isn’t true. Here are 3 steps you can take to start improving your empathic capacity immediately.

1. H.A.L.T.

12-step programs use the h.a.l.t. acronym to remind us that when we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired we don’t make healthy decisions because we’re self-absorbed. The first rule of empathy building is to take care of yourself. Slow down. Addiction to busyness makes us very good at shuffling boxes, but not opening them. Workaholism doesn’t chop off empathy at the knees. Workaholics aim higher; they chop off empathic capacity at the neck. For me, it took getting hit by a truck to learn this lesson. I recommend learning less painfully. Slow down and take care of yourself. It’s good for your physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational health.

2. LISTEN DEEPLY

Your mental chatter is super loud; everyone’s is. It is so loud, in fact, it will drown out what other people say. You might hear the words, but you won’t hear the emotions and perspectives underpinning those words. Meditation develops patience and focus for deep listening. Mindful meditation practice isn’t designed to eliminate thinking as so many people believe. It increases awareness of the bazillion thoughts running through your head at any given time. From awareness, you grow in an ability to place intentional focus. You learn to allow thoughts to float on by without attaching to them. You expand space in your mind for paying deeper attention wherever you choose to place it.

3. REFLECT

Our empathic capacity, particularly in response to any of the many forms of pain, is deeply rooted in mirror neurons in the brain. We short-circuit this hardwiring when we respond to another person’s experience by trying to fix, minimize, or ignore it — otherwise known as fight, flight, or flee which activates the amygdala or “lizard brain.” All of it stems from a fundamental discomfort with another person’s suffering. Instead of listening deeply and reflecting the observed experience with something as basic as a wholehearted, “I am so sorry. That sucks!”, the listener jumps to survival mode. I know you’ve seen this and probably experienced it yourself. Here’s an example:

For 18 months I had total kidney failure. I was incredibly sick and dying slowly (actually we all are, but that’s another topic). No one could change what was happening to me. It ultimately took my brother’s sacrifice of a kidney. Until then, those around me had to be in the presence of my suffering. I didn’t rant about it, but there was no escaping the reality. Some were empathic, many were not. The ‘fixers’ went to great lengths to tell me what supplements or foods I should eat. The ‘minimizers’ said things like, “Well at least you’re alive,” or compared me to someone who “had it worse.” The ‘ignorers’ cracked jokes (I love some good dark humor, but timing matters) or simply literally ignored it. These aren’t unkind people. But none of these responses were helpful to me or informative to the listeners. It just made them more comfortable.

Empathy training teaches you how to understand and respect others at a generative level. Instead of skirting around the box, you dive in. You connect at the level of humanity. Relationships deepen rapidly and collaborative, creative solutions emerge. The next tough conversation you have, give the 1-2-3-a try. Slow down, listen deeply, and reflect. Your wholehearted response can change everything.

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