Empathy Begins Here



In my granddaughter Mia’s preschool, five small white toilets are lined up along a tiled bathroom wall just around the corner from five conveniently low sinks for washing hands. The boys and girls in the Peacefulness classroom line up together to take turns on the toilets. Like many of her classmates, Mia is not quite three years old, so learning to go to the “potty” by herself and leaving diapers behind has been a developmental milestone of which she is understandably quite proud.

Maybe conquering this grown-up task so recently is what has made her empathize with a classmate (I’ll call him Jack) who found that using the school bathroom is not quite as comfortable as accomplishing this task in his home bathroom. Mia’s teacher reported that when she tried to coax an anxious Jack to go in to the potty during outdoor recess, Mia not only volunteered to accompany him but patted his shoulder and sang songs as he tried to do what he was there to do.

And then his mom sent Mia’s mom this email:

Hi Mia’s mom,

This is Jack’s mom. Thank you for tagging me in the photos. I wish there were more, and [the teacher] promised that there will be more!

I think Mia might share with you today that Jack finally went poop in potty yesterday (Thank god!) The teacher told me that Mia went to say “Good job” to Jack. How sweet is she! But what I really want to thank Mia for was the fact that according to the teacher, Mia accompanied Jack earlier this week to teach him how to poop in the toilet in the washroom.  She also told him “good job” and “you can do it” and sang to him while he sat on the toilet (which he didn’t want to do at first). That’s like the sweetest thing I have heard! And I’m sure it wouldn’t be a surprise to you that when I asked Jack who would he like to sit with in the class, “MIA!” he said.

Thanks to Mia again for helping little Jack achieve his “poop” success.

Have a lovely day.

Warmest regards,

Jack’s mom

Little Mia’s apparent ability to empathize with Jack’s situation touched the hearts of all the “grown-ups” who observed it, and this is why I think that is so: Despite the terrifying problems of our current world situation, we understand that we can begin only as individuals to bring about meaningful change for the more than seven billion beings who share our planet. We can be hopeful, for at not-yet-three-years-old, Mia has learned enough about the world to realize that other people count, that connection is essential, that compassionate action—no matter how small scale—can make a difference in at least one person’s life.

In a recent blog, renowned author Anne Lamott reminded me of a most wonderful quote from Ram Dass, which now comes to mind as I smile and think of Mia’s compassion: “We are all just walking each other home.” This is emotional intelligence at its best—empathizing and connecting with others, reaching out to help each other with daily problems, giving a hand to help someone else get through the obstacle course that confronts us every day in whatever sphere we inhabit. What difference can you make in someone’s life today?


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Self-Awareness Matters, A Lot

face as puzzle

Recently, after getting off a flight from a relaxing, stress-free vacation in sunny Mexico, I found myself in a slow-moving line at U.S. Customs.  With no attempt to eavesdrop, I couldn’t help but hear a conversation taking place less than two feet behind me—apparently two businessmen discussing one of their colleagues—or more likely, one of their employees.

“That was just not funny in the least,” said the gray-haired and rather distinguished looking man who was clearly feeling outraged.  “This isn’t the first time, and taking that picture there in the airport was the final straw,” he went on.  “What was she thinking?  It’s time to get rid of her.”

The other fellow did not have the same sense of outrage, but neither did he seem to want to contradict the man who may have been his boss.  After a few minutes of listening and kind of grunting his assent, he tried changing the subject.  But then the outraged guy was right back at it.  “She’s entertaining, and she’s smart, but she just doesn’t know her limits.  That was not funny at all.  There have been too many incidents.  We’re going to have to do something.”

It was all I could do not to swing my head around and get a closer look at these two guys.  And I would have loved to know what it is that the smart, funny woman (I was picturing an attractive woman—perhaps Generation X or Y) had said or done to make this man angry enough to blast his feelings to any number of people dragging their suitcases through Customs.

In his anger—it was clear that the woman under discussion had somehow touched a hot button—he wasn’t aware or didn’t care who heard him as he planned his revenge out loud.  At that moment, I was wishing that I could call the woman, whoever she was, and warn her that her behavior had been perceived as threatening and that if she wanted to keep her job, she had better modify her words, actions, and attitude around her boss.

Then it occurred to me that both the man (whom I assume to be the boss) and the woman (whom I assume to be an employee) are suffering from the same problem—a lack of self-awareness.  Self-awareness is the foundational piece of Emotional Intelligence.  A lack of it can cause problems in other areas—managing one’s emotions, understanding what others are feeling, building satisfying relationships with others, and even having the resilience that is needed to cope with the inevitable changes and challenges that are part of life.  Self-awareness matters, a lot.

I don’t know the true and doubtless complicated story of the man in the Customs line, but in the story I  created about him after listening to his tirade for ten minutes or more, he is not self-aware.  He probably cannot find the words to describe how he is feeling in the moment.  He may have been surprised to learn that the employee—the woman who behaved so boldly—perceives him in a way that does not match his perception of himself.  He did not seem aware that the man listening to him on line was uncomfortable—not to mention those of us strangers who were standing in close proximity.

Such lack of self-awareness makes this distinguished gentleman appear much like a two-year old who has been thwarted in some way.  I imagine that he is an intelligent man, a business executive, perhaps the owner of his own business.  He may work very hard and even have taken his employees to a retreat at a resort in a sunny clime.  But I also imagine that he finds himself confused by an inability to relate to the people around him.  He may have similar difficulties relating to his family members.  I imagine that instead of trying to understand those he lives and works with, he falls back on his authority—as a father, as a boss—but that he is left feeling dissatisfied and even isolated.

And what about the woman who may have been fired on Monday?  I don’t know her real story either, but the story I’ve created about her tells me that she, too, lacks self-awareness.  And that lack is going to get her into trouble sooner or later.  She is smart, she is entertaining—so says the man who does not find her funny.  She may not be aware, however, of her own intentions and attitudes as she jokes or kids her colleagues.  She may also not be aware of how others perceive her, even as they are laughing.  She may feel that being smart—perhaps she is a graduate of Yale or Stanford or Duke—is enough, and that she doesn’t have to care about others’ emotions.

Okay, so these stories are fictions imagined from brief observations, but they might be true. Haven’t we all observed and known people who lack this self-awareness?  The good news is that self-awareness isn’t a genetically transmitted character trait;  self-awareness can be taught, and it can be learned.  From early childhood forward, we have been learning to be more self-aware, and many of us still have a few lessons to learn.  Self-awareness matters, a lot.

Barbara Kerr is the owner of Emotional Intelligence Insights and offers an interactive, online, on-demand course (anywhere, anytime at your convenience) to teach the concepts and skills of Emotional Intelligence and offer more than 50 steps you can take to increase your Emotional Intelligence skills.

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What’s Funny About That?

kitten and dogs

On a recent lazy Sunday morning as my sweetie and I were sipping coffee in bed, I glanced through the email on my iPad with the vague intention of clearing out my overflowing email inbox.  As I ruthlessly pressed delete for any number of ads and notifications, I noticed that a friend with a quirky sense of humor had sent me a link to a video. I was tempted to zap it—let’s just say that his sense of humor and mine are often a mismatch.  But the alarmed expression on the young woman’s face on the video screen pulled me in, so I clicked on the arrow.  During the next few minutes I laughed so hard that I cried—and just about spilled my coffee.  I’ve watched the video several times since then and shared it with friends.  I continue to laugh just thinking about it. Now I’m interested in why I’m laughing because we can all use more laughter in our lives, right? 

What was so funny?  A crew of technical experts set up an elaborate prank in a New York coffee shop, a prank not unlike the old You’re on Candid Camera setups but much more sophisticated.  The video showed the preparations for fooling people and then showed in quick succession the expressions and body language of the people who were targeted by the prank.  They were amused at first and curious, then they were surprised, then they were shocked, then they were incredulous, and in the end most everyone was frightened to the point of actually getting up and running away.  You can see the video here (it is actually an ad for a remake of the movie, Carrie): http://www.youtube.com/embed/VlOxlSOr3_M?feature=player_embedded.

Fear, it turns out, can be elicited easily enough, even among a young, savvy group of New Yorkers just beginning a routine day in the big city. Although actors were used in the setup—customers who sat in the coffee shop and began an argument over spilled coffee—there is no mistaking the expressions on the faces of those real customers who unwittingly entered the shop and ordered their cappuccinos and bagels on a morning they expected to be like any other.  One young woman had her phone camera out and tried to take a picture until she, too, quickly backed away in fright.  The two-and-a-half-minute video is a great study in how emotions show up in our facial expressions and body language.    

I’m interested in these visible expressions of emotions, and I teach them in workshops and in an online course as part of being more aware of others’ emotions. The eminent psychologist, Paul Ekman has shown that no matter where you go in this world (and he even went to remote villages untouched by western civilization), people recognize at least seven “universal” facial expressions.  Recognizing and being sensitive to others’ emotional expressions is a major aspect of Emotional Intelligence, and it is possible to learn how to better understand how people feel by learning about what is revealed in their expressions and in the ways they hold or move their bodies. 

But I’m even more curious about why I find watching this video and the frantic fright and flight of the coffee shop customers—funny! Is it some sadistic streak that I keep hidden from myself—I who like to think of myself as kind and empathetic?  Does my enjoyment come from the fact that I’m “in” on the joke whereas the customers are not?  How is it that the designers of this elaborate prank have so exactly touched my funny bone?  Because I’m aware that humor helps us cope with pain, stress, and adversity, and can help build a store of resilience, the experience of watching this video piqued my curiosity about what is funny.

I found a wonderful explanation on a TED talk by Peter McGraw, who describes himself as a full-time scholar and part-time adventurer.  He has developed what he calls the “benign violation theory” to explain what makes things funny.  The meaning of the word “violation” is simply anything that threatens the way you think the world ought to be—in other words, you sense that something is wrong in a situation.  If the violation is “malign”—someone gets hurt or there are other terrible consequences—we do not laugh.  When the violation is benign, however, we find it funny.  McGraw explains several ways to make a situation benign—when we do not take the violation seriously, when the situation is psychologically distant from us (it happens to someone else, it happened a long time ago, it is just too unreal), or when there is an alternative explanation (such as a “mock attack” like tickling). 

So—for a situation to be funny, there has to be some kind of threat, something that is “not right” according to our expectation of what is normal.  At the same time, the situation must be benign, although that concept is a bit more complicated (when someone else trips on the curb it is funnier than when you trip on the curb for example).  I have an eleven-month-old granddaughter who loves the “threat” of me crawling around the kitchen island to where she is crawling on the other side.  She hears me coming (I’m saying, “Where is Mia?”) and she is chortling with expectation, for although I am a sort of “threat” because I will catch her, she knows that I will simply scoop her up with a hug and a kiss.  Even a baby finds humor in a situation that is a violation but simultaneously benign.

The coffee shop video was funny for the same reason.  Because I was in on the joke, I knew that the situation was absolutely benign.  The actors weren’t really angry, the coffee that was spilled on a computer didn’t matter, and the telekinetic consequences (the offending coffee spiller was thrown against the wall and rose several feet upwards when the “victim” simply waved her hand at him!) were all staged.  But the looks on the faces of the innocent bystanders was absolutely priceless—and extremely funny. 

I loved being able to laugh so hard!  My work in Emotional Intelligence has helped me realize how much humor can help us live with greater balance and well-being.  Adding humor to our lives can help us add positivity, improve interpersonal relationships, and build resilience—all aspects of Emotional Intelligence.  Fortunately, Peter McGraw has some ideas for living a more humorous life.  You may want to look at his TED video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysSgG5V-R3U) or visit his blog (http://blog.petermcgraw.org/). Here’s to more humor, laughter, and fun in your life!