Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Best Empathy Videos of 2013

Welcome to my list of the greatest empathy videos I've seen this year.

For some people the power of a video is in how easy it is to watch, and how easy it is to get a point across. There have been several videos made that try to explain empathy to people, and some others that just are tools for building an empathetic connection with others.

Now, please turn down the lights and turn up your headphone volume...and here we go!

1. Empathy, The Human Connection to Patient Care by Cleveland Clinic

2. Sesame Street, Mark Ruffalo and Elmo talk "Empathy"

3. RSA Animate "The Empathic Civilization" spoken by Jeremy Rifkin

4. RSA Animate "The Power of Outrospection" by Roman Kznaric

5. RSA Shorts "The Power of Empathy" spoken by Dr. Brene' Brown

I'm really hoping that we see some more fantastic empathy-building videos in the next year. Did I leave out your favorite? Please tell me in the comments, or post on our facebook page.

Let's bring on 2014!


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Favorite toys and games for building empathy

In the last few months, I've seen some really great games that not only are fun, but can help you and I to strengthen our empathy muscles. Let's do twenty reps of 'check out these games' and then let me know what you think in the comments!


First, here's an empathy 'toy' designed for use in the classroom or at home. It's a complete curriculum - the toy, a classroom planner, and ideas for how to use this with people of all ages. I fully support this program and would like to see it succeed. Please watch the video or click the link to check out the full program.

Empathy Toy

Second, here's a different idea - see how other people see things through a party game. The game is "Telestrations" and it works well with the adult crowd as well as with kids. If you've ever played the game 'telephone' or 'pictionary' then this is a combination of the two. Click the link to go to the Board Game Geek listing, or just watch the video for a family's review.


Do you know of any more games or toys that build empathy?


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Building empathy with my daughter

I've got two kids, ages six and two. As much as I might try to feel what it's like to be in their shoes, it's really, really hard. As in nearly impossible. :)

Remember this article on empathy traps? The trap I fall into headfirst with my kids is "fixing them". It's one thing to try to stay away from 'fixing' my friends, or strangers I meet, because they are all adults. I can see how I shouldn't tell them how to live their lives, because they are grownups who can make their own decisions.

For my daughter though it's so much harder to try not to fix her. She's my daughter, of course I want to try to fix all of her problems. I want to help her, I want to teach her, I want to control her happiness. But when I control her I lose the parenting game.


For example, let's take the other day when I wanted her to put away her toys. She got mad - and she showed her anger in a child's way, with pouting and stomping her foot and folding her arms. "No", she would shout, "No, no, no!" I got angry right back and her and said, "Don't be angry about that! That's not worth getting angry about!" Which is a totally silly and emotional thing to say. I say it because I'm feeling angry too - angry at her for being just like me.

I see and feel every day how much she is how I was at her age. Then I think, "Well, I finally stopped behaving that way, why won't she stop too!"

When I look at times like this in hindsight, I know that I should be listening to her anger or fear with empathy. I also see how hard it is to step out of that emotional moment. 


So here's the issue - right there. I want to be empathetic to my daughter, but I also have my own feelings to deal with, and her feelings too.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

A year of empathy building

This has been an amazing year, thank you all for taking the ride with me! For those who missed them and want to catch up, here are two of my favorite moments from the past year:

Or of course, you can just browse through the archive.

I plan to make the next year even better for you by sharing more stories and pushing myself every day to be more empathetic with everyone.

Thanks for all you've done. You've been a great help.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My Cake Decorating hobby - trying to match a frosting color

It's messy, it's sloppy, but making frosting is just all-out fun.

I was challenged the other day to create an African safari theme. My host would be adding toy animals and zebra-striped wrappers, and she wanted a chocolate cupcake with a grassland frosting. This sounded simple; but nothing is ever really easy when it comes to cakes!


First I made up a batch of basic buttercream, and added the raspberry flavoring. Only I had forgotten that raspberry flavoring will tint the entire bowlful slightly pink.

Not Pink! I didn't want PINK!!!* I was going for that dried hay and grassland color (kind of like this) which is definitely NOT pink.

I wanted to fix it but I was worried. I thought about adding color to the pink but I didn't want to ruin the whole batch with a mistake. So I took a cup or so of the frosting out of the main bowl to experiment with. The lady at the cupcake shop had recommended a light brown food dye, so I added a small amount of brown. Only what I didn't realize was that it was a red based brown. The result? This pumpkin-colored mess:

Not too appetizing, right? So I tried again, this time going back to the base pink and adding just yellow - ignoring the brown completely. That came out much better, it wasn't hay but it wasn't orange either. Here's the way it looked in the mixer:

And here's how it looked on the final dessert:

Look out, it's a rhino on his way to his watering hole! :)

I'm proud of myself for doing this; I was able to give the recipient what she wanted; a tasty cupcake that fit her party theme. I created something, and it feels good.

Have you created lately? What gets your pride going?


*This line is actually is a reference to a book called "Pinkalicious" by Victoria Kann. The story is all about a little girl who eats too many pink cupcakes and turns pink (her hair, her skin, everything). Her parents aren't particularly thrilled about this. If you are interested, you can check out the book yourself here.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The importance of a friendly face

I honestly think I haven't spent enough time smiling at people. Maybe it's my history of living in New York City, but I definitely haven't smiled enough. I was taught that smiling at strangers will get you into trouble. I've since learned that smiling at strangers can fill your day with awesome moments.


A few days ago I walked into my local bagel shop to pick up breakfast for the family. It was cold, really cold, biting cold. Cold enough to wear gloves and layers and hats and other things that I've kept buried in my closet for months.

The bagel place (I'm not going to name it, because honestly it's just not that great of a place*) has a double-door to keep the cold out and the warm in. As I was leaving, warm bag of bagel sandwiches in my hand, a family of six was coming in. I thought, "I'll hold the door for them". The mom and the teenage daughter were first, herding two smaller kids with them. I smiled at them but they were arguing about something - they were very engrossed in their conversation.

I was about to let the door go when I saw the dad, bringing up the rear. I still had my smile on and kept it for him, holding the inner door. He was holding the outer door. He looked at me - and smiled back.

He said, "Okay, let's do this! In one, two, three!"

I laughed and we both let go of our doors at the same time, each grabbing the other's door.

He laughed too.


*In my opinion the best bagels are from Ess A Bagel in New York City. I know that there are advantages to living in New York, and the bagels are definitely one of them.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Giving Thanks - a short thought for Thanksgiving in America

I'm greatful for all of you. Thank you for being part of this path with me.

May you all find a way to be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes!


Monday, November 25, 2013

Empathy - you don't need to be certified

Ever since starting this blog I've read a lot of articles and stories about empathy. I've seen stories written by psychologists, by medical doctors, and by economists. All of these people have a podium and are using their influence to say that empathy is good, and here's how it's good for people who work in 'my profession'. I say that anyone can join this party; empathy is good for any job where you have to work with other people.

For example, I work for a large company. I have co-workers, managers and clients. If I'm thinking about how my clients/co-workers/managers are feeling, then I'm listening to them. Developing those 'listening well' skills is a great way to do business because:

1. It helps me to get along better with my clients. I'm spending effort listening to their needs, and getting them what they need within the constraints of my job. So my clients (in turn) like me more, and want to keep doing business with me. They give me great feedback after projects are complete, so my manager is happy (see #3 below).

2. It helps me to get along better with my co-workers. I'm spending time listening to not just what my co-workers are asking me to do but also how they are feeling about the work.* So my co-workers (in turn) find me easy to work with, and want to keep me on interesting projects. If I stay busy I'm more likely to stay employed. Also they give me great feedback after our projects are complete, so my manager is happy (see #3 below).

3. It helps me to get along better with my managers and leadership in general. Also, as per #1 and #2 above, feedback from others is positive so my manager wants to keep me around. My manager may also want me to develop further, so I can keep spreading these streams of empathy around the company.

What do you do? Would empathy help in your job?


*I'm assuming that you've spent time, at one point in your life, listening to a co-worker complain about work. That is not what I'm talking about here; I'm talking about listening to the person who is having trouble admitting that they made a mistake, and needs to express it without feeling like they'll be beat up for it. If someone had not been there for me, letting me know it was okay to make mistakes and move on, I wouldn't be good at what I do. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Empathy over the phone

I spend time every day talking on the phone. Building empathy over the phone, like building empathy in person, takes effort. I can tell you that it's completely worth it.*


The other day I had a problem;  I wasn't getting money I was owed on my credit card. I called the helpdesk, feeling a little mad about this, and a lady's voice says, "Hello, welcome to Credit Card ABC Rewards technical services desk, how can I help you?"

"Hi there, how are you today?"

Even though I'm mad I have to start every conversation with a stranger this way. If I do, I instantly pull them out of their pre-recorded voice mode and into normal-person voice. Most people respond instantly with something real.

She says, "I'm doing...pretty well, actually." I say, "That's great" and already start to feel a little calmer.

She goes back into working mode with, "So, how can I help you?" So I describe the problem in detail.

She replies with a friendly, "Okay let me look up your account. Hmm, well it looks like it's working fine."

So basically she's saying that I'm wrong, or I made a mistake. I could react with anger as I've done before, but instead I say, "Well, actually, it's not, because of reason A, historical problem B and..." I'm feeling calm, because I'm thinking of her as a person. I'm actively trying to not be angry at the system not working the way it should, or at her for telling me that I'm wrong.

"Hmm....Let me check something;. I think I've seen this issue before, just one moment."

She's not fighting me or telling me I don't know what I'm talking about, perhaps because of her training, but also perhaps because I started out treating her like a person and not a machine to be yelled at. I believe that she's trying to help me because she sees me as a person too.

She said, "Okay, I see the problem, yes that's right. Okay you should be all set."

Great! We're all done and there was no anger, no stress. Just a problem getting solved. I admit this was easier than most helpdesk issues but it still serves my point.


We kept going. I asked her to explain what had happened, and to walk me through what she was doing, which she did. We stayed on the phone, me asking questions about how the software/website worked, her answering them and making sure I understood. She said, "I'm going to date myself by saying this, but this system is slower than a typewriter" and we both laughed.

At this point I didn't WANT to hang up the phone. I was happy to talk to this person, both because she made it a pleasant experience AND because I made efforts to be pleasant. When we said good-bye and wished each other 'have a good day' it was meaningful.

In one phone conversation we went from 'angry' to 'neutral' to 'positive'. What can you do in your next phone call with a stranger? Have you tried this?


*Note that there's a great group of people proving every day that telephone empathy works and makes a difference, through The Parents Circle. Israelis and Palestinians finding ways to talk, listen and really communicate to each other.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Political stalemate - empathy in negotiation

About a month ago, the US Government was in the middle of a political stalemate. Our elected leaders were on opposite sides of a fence, glaring at each other from between the slats. At the time, I heard lots of arguments from people who supported one side, some who supported the other.

When my friends and family started discussing these topics, at first I recoiled. I'm not one who likes to get in the middle of a ruckus, and this seemed like a doozy of a fight. These were also political arguments, which I know from experience are also emotional ones. If I really want to start a fight among friends, all I have to do is start talking politics.

Sometimes I think our political system has more layers than a baklava. There are the public layers; the ones we see on the news media and the layers we see when we talk to our local representatives. Then there are the private layers of dealmaking between the players (elected officials, lobbyists, assistants to officials and lobbyists, business people with influence) that we mostly don't see at all.*


As the days of the shutdown continued, it became more and more likely that I was going to have to talk to someone about how I felt about the shutdown. This came to a head one day with my good friend W, who asked me how I felt about what was going on.

I said that it seemed that nobody really wanted to make a deal, and they all just want to take sides and place blame. She wasn't happy and started to argue with me.

I said, "Look, I hear you. But - I really think that if the people involved were able to listen to each other with empathy, then we wouldn't have a hard line stalemate. We would have some real negotiation."

I talked about how I took this course in negotiation tactics about a year ago, which was based on a book[1].

The course focused on the idea that if you negotiate over positions, nobody really wins. If my position wins, then your position loses. Our relationships also suffer, so even though I win, I lose. In general, the book and the course talk about how there's no advantage to taking a hard line, or a soft line position.

However, if you get people together and ask them to work past the emotional reactions, that there's usually a place you can find a real connection. To put it another way, if I see you (the person across the negotiating table) as a person, if I can empathize with you, then I can see and understand the underlying problem that's behind the issues. I can stop seeing this as "your issue" or "my issue". Instead it becomes "the problem" that needs solving.

For this method to work we also have to believe that I'm a smart person, that you're a smart person, and together we can find a great solution to this problem. There's no trick; but each side has to believe that they can work together to come up with the answer. An answer that will be a 'win' for both sides.

Her response was to tell me that the real problem with the government stalemate was that the people in charge of making the deals didn't have the power to make these decisions. I said, "Of course they do, they are the ones at the table." She said, "No, they don't, because they can't vote for anything without making their supporters unhappy, and then they won't be re-elected."

I replied with, "Well, then that's a real issue behind the government shutdown. Instead of walking away from the table, they can be negotiating about what would make their supporters happy." They can push past their emotional reactions to each other, stop seeing each other as 'the enemy' and work out a better solution.

The conversation moved on.


A few weeks later the stalemate ended when one side of the negotiating table gave in to the other side's demands, as a result of growing pressure from the American people. I didn't see that anyone in either party was really listening to one another, and I don't see that our leaders will do any better next time. I hope they will.


*Of course, all of my comments here are based on the top layer; I don't have any real idea of what's going on behind the scenes in Washington. I, like most of the American people, am basing my ideas on the media representation of politics. I also see that the media layer is hidden behind another layer; the political leanings of the reporters and the networks they work for. Definitely NOT a sweet layered baklava, it's more like a raw onion.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The band

In high school, I played drums in a rock band. We were three girls (me, D and A) with old instruments, taking our best shot at "Smoke on the Water" in a scummy practice studio. It was great fun.

The building with the practice studio was completely ridiculous. It was a run down building with loft size spaces up five flights of stairs. There may have been an elevator, I don't remember. There were walls of rusty exposed pipes, and everything was covered in black paint. The restroom I recall vividly - because it wasn't really a room. It was an open, dark hallway with a dirty seat-less toilet smack in the center. A bare bulb swung from a cord about 15 feet above my head while I did my business (and you can be sure I did it really, really fast in that place).

The practice rooms themselves were pretty good, although I wouldn't go so far as to call them 'nice'. Most of them had usable drum kits (again, not 'nice'), they all had amps and mic stands, and for $10 an hour I could make as much noise as I wanted. I could do paradiddles for half an hour, badly, and nobody would mind. I could pretend to be Larry Mullen, Jr., or Ringo Starr, and it felt real.


We started meeting there for our practice sessions. After some of our sessions, we would all go back to A's place (she was our guitarist) and hang out. We could talk about our insecurities, dream about the bands (and guys) we liked, and revel in how amazing it felt to take off our bras at day's end and just be sweaty chicks.

One time, we were walking back to A's place when our bassist D cornered me. She wanted to tell me her story. I couldn't believe her at first, because her life was so different than any life I'd known.

Her family hated her, she said. "They want to kick me out. I don't do drugs, but they keep accusing me." I asked her why and she said she didn't know. Then she said, "Sometimes I feel like I'm not myself. It's like I blackout, and have these missing times where I don't know what's happened for hours."

I thought about how well I knew her. Did I think she did drugs? Did I think they were falsely accusing her? Should I be the supportive friend? She was clearly upset, and when I didn't immediately say anything she said, "Never mind, forget it." and skipped ahead to talk to A.

Back at A's place, after sitting on the floor and chatting for a bit I saw that some of A's left arm was covered in little marks. They looked like scars. She saw me looking and said, "Sometimes I cut myself, y'know? No big deal."

D rolled up her sleeve. "Yeah, me too." they looked at each other and laughed. It blew my tiny teenage mind. I was scared, and confused. Who does that? Who hurts themselves on purpose, and then laughs about it?

I must have had a crazy look on my face, or how I acted the rest of that night threw them off, because a week later they kicked me out of the band.


Now I wonder what happened to them, and where their lives took them.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Medical treatment - should doctors build empathy?

It seems that the news is full of stories about how our medical system lacks empathy, how we need to increase it, and the benefits of doing so.

Things like this: Thomas Dahlborg "How a lack of Empathy Affects our Healthcare"

And this: Danielle Ofri "My Leap of Faith in Medicine"

And this too: Jessie Gruman "Adding Empathy to Medical School Requirements"

I see (from the patient's point of view) a big difference in how I'm treated by different doctors, and how it makes me feel.

In a typical doctor visit, I check in at the front desk. I wait in the waiting room. I wait in the examination room. The nurse examines me and asks some questions, then the doctor comes in to talk or examine or give results. I've been having doctor visits just like this for all of my life.

However I've noticed that some doctors interact with me quite differently than others. Case in point; the story of Dr C and Dr V.


Doctor C

Recently I've been having this twitch around my eye that won't go away. So I took the problem to a doctor, to see how he could help me.

When Dr C arrives, he asks me, "How are you doing?" He makes eye contact. He listens to me talk for a good few minutes, then examines me. He says, "Well, I think it's a muscle spasm, named (whatever)." I say, "Okay, what does that mean?"

He says, "Well, it could be an easy fix, but I'm not certain, so let's talk about your options." I told him about what I had read on the internet. He gave me more information about what I had read; how it could be something simple, but it could also mask a more serious problem. He suggested that I go to a specialist. He also asked me to "let him know" how things go with the specialist.

I thanked him and left.

My reaction coming out of this appointment? I felt listened to, and cared for. I felt like this doctor genuinely was interested in my well-being. I would want to share with this doctor how I was doing in the future. His comments were made in an empathetic way, and it made an impression on me. This was brought home even more when, a few weeks later, I got a call from Dr C's office asking if I had made an appointment with the specialist. I told them "Yes, I'm seeing Dr V next week". They reminded me again to please send the results of Dr V's visit to Dr C when I'm done. I asked, "Why do you need that?" and the nurse replied, "Dr C believes in holistic healthcare; knowing the whole picture about a patient."

This seriously could have been a scene from Little House on the Prairie, people. It felt that good, and I still had no idea what was wrong with my eye! :)

Dr V

After several appointments and tests with Dr V, today I had arrived to get (hopefully) some final results. After waiting in the waiting room and in the exam room, Dr V came in and sat down. He looked at his computer monitor and said, "So, you are here for the results of your test, hmmm?" I said yes. He said, "Hmm, well according to this report, (long string of completely unintelligible sci-babble)." I said, "Okay, what does that mean?" He looked up, and was about to reply when the phone rang in the next room. He said, "Oh, excuse me" and went next door to answer it. I know he was answering the phone because he left my exam door open. I know he was talking to an insurance agency, because of the things he said on the phone.

I was a little embarrassed, because I was sitting on the exam table with the door wide open. I was dressed, and all, but still it was a little odd. Then I got a little annoyed, because I did all of the waiting I'm supposed to, and here he is having a phone call. I mean, I realize that my time with him is limited but seriously? Taking calls?

So yeah, I'm feeling a little miffed but not too much, because I'm imagining reasons why he answered the call (his nurse is out today, he's expecting an important call, etc). I'm trying to keep calm and wait for the translation of the results.

Then he hangs up, and takes another call.

So I'm not feeling particularly respected or cared about at this point. I considered walking out, but I still needed to know what all the technobabble meant. So I waited for him to finish his second call.

Then he comes back in, says, "I'm sorry." He looks back at the computer screen and tells me my diagnosis. I've got a torn disc in my back and a pinched nerve in my neck. I look at him. "What does this mean?" I asked. He said, "Well, you are young. You don't need surgery. Just don't lift anything heavy and come back and see me in four months. Try to relax. Lose some weight."

So here I am, sitting there a little shell-shocked by the diagnosis. I still am trying to process this, and I asked him about ways to treat it and things I can do. I took out my notepad to make some notes. He said, "Don't bother writing this down, I'll print out this report for you with the names of the issues," (which he didn't.) We moved on to the second part of our visit, which was a follow-up test, and that was it. He walked me out. End of visit.


I can't help but feel the different types of treatment from the different doctors acutely, because of all this thinking about empathy. It's clear to me that Dr C wants to show that he cares about the feelings of his patients. It's also clear to me that Dr V, regardless of how much he cares about his patients, doesn't find it important to show that to us. I feel disrespected coming out of Dr V's appointment, and as a result I feel like I want to take my money and my business elsewhere. As good as he may be at 'doctoring' he hasn't made me feel good.

Dr C and Dr V could be anyone's doctors. I can't help but feel bad for the people who only have Dr V's in their life, and grateful that we have some Dr C's around. 

More empathy in healthcare? Yes, I agree. We definitely need it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

From closed to open

Sometimes I get asked the question, "Why are you focusing on empathy, and building up connections with other people?" I used to be a self-reliant person, and I rarely wanted to reach out. "So what's the difference now?"

I talk to them about when I saw this video about empathy and outrospection. I connected with his message, partially because I remember a time many years ago when I followed the self-help movement.


In my twenties, I was not happy. I didn't like my job. It was fun and inspiring (which was great!) but it was also part time, didn't pay well and had no future prospects (not so great). I felt scared; I wanted things to change but was afraid of making bad decisions. I didn't want to admit I had failed. I thought, "Let me try reading a 'self-help' book, then if I made a mistake, I can figure it out without telling anyone."

All of the books I read (and I read a few) seemed to be saying the same thing; they all told me to look inward, and find my center. I was to look inside myself and see my true nature - only then would I learn to follow my heart. According to these book authors, I was a golden star of shining light, and if I nurtured my soul I would be able to polish that star to a gleaming glow, and to find what I needed inside myself. Now in my forties I look back and think, what a load of crap. :)

Not that I'm not a golden star of shining light, or anything, but if I had the solution inside myself I would have done it already. I wasn't lost. I was just unhappy and full of fear of making the wrong choice.

It took me several years of working at that job and reading those books and looking inside myself before I realized I wasn't getting anywhere. It was a growing moment for me; I stopped looking in and instead reached out, to talk about my concerns and share my feelings. I remember I was so embarrassed, and scared, I could hardly get the words out (cough, cough, hack!). I couldn't look my friends in the eye but I did talk, and they listened to me. They made me feel safe, and made me realize it was okay to move forward. Only after that day was I able to be done with the dead-end job and move on.


Now I look back and think again about all that time of (to me) useless introspection. Once I was able to open myself up and be vulnerable with the people in my life who cared about me, that's when I was able to make a choice. Those friends listened to me, and they were what I needed to get me through.

Now I'm definitely more open of a person. I believe that all this empathy growing and connection building has made a difference. It's still not comfortable to share but it does come more easily. 

I'm just not so scared anymore. I don't feel alone; instead, I look out at the world every day and think, "Look at all these amazing people living their lives. I can talk to them, find out how they do it, and then maybe by hearing their stories I'll learn how to be an amazing person living a good life, too.'

Has empathy and connection-building helped you?


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Personal post - A parking lot moment

I had one of those parking lot moments tonight. Head pressed firmly to my steering wheel I was late for an appointment and didn't care one bit. I was listening to my favorite song. How many of us love a song so much that we try to stop the world when we hear it? We may say to everyone around, "Everyone be quiet, I need to turn this up." For me, this is the one. Nothing gets to me like the song "In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel. This is a song full of emotional power.

"How do you know you are in love? All the songs make sense." - Castle, TV Series

Listening, I feel my heart pound. I sweat. It's like I'm falling in love all over again hearing this song; feeling that moment when I want to believe with all of my being that

this person

standing in front of me

is the one person who will complete my world.


It's been many years since I've listened to something new. Unless you count the kid's music or television shows, which I don't. However, I still have Peter Gabriel. He's stayed with me through failing exams, through falling out of love and then back in again, and through the birth of both of my children.

I can't imagine a time when I won't want to hear his music. 

Do you have a favorite song? How does it make you feel?


Monday, September 30, 2013

Monday morning mix-it-up; some fantastic articles I've read recently

Some of you follow me on twitter or facebook, and know that I post links to articles. In case you missed them, here are some great things I've read recently:

1. Don't Mix Up Empathy and Civil Rights by Judy Endow

This article reminds me I don't have to be the person who chooses to have empathy for one person over another. If I hear a parent screaming at a child and a child screaming back at a parent, I can have empathy for both of them. Only empathizing with the parents could mean I'm introducing bias.

2. Blame, a RadioLab podcast by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich

This one is a hard, hard one to listen to. Trigger warnings for those who have issues with sexual/violence stories. If you are comfortable listening then please do. For me, this was a great exercise in building up empathy for those we think of as 'evil' or 'monsters' in our society.

3. She Yelled and Called Me Names by Susan Basham

A fantastic story about reaching out to someone who is hurting you. Instead of hating them, try listening to them.

That's it for this week! Please share your favorite stories in the comments.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Can you do it while distracted?

I'm driving down the road. I need to merge into traffic, but there's no room. I look at the driver of the car next to me and think, "Hey, I've got my signal on. Can't you see I NEED to get in?"

Sometimes, I'll slow my car down, wait for an available space, and glide in. Usually I can do this if I'm feeling calm and relaxed, and nothing is bothering me. Even if I do get mad, I'll take a step back and put myself in his shoes. "Maybe he's in a real hurry", I'll think, "because he's carrying his pregnant-and-in-labor wife to the hospital". That usually works and the anger quickly dissipates.

Then, there are those days (perhaps you've had days like this) where I'm driving along and thinking about a problem at work. Or maybe I'm worried about the kids, or maybe I'm just a little sleepy. Those days I may react by shouting, "Hey, c'mon, what's your problem?!?" and giving the guy a nasty glare.

It's those times when I'm really distracted (by my own problems or whatever) that I'm really NOT having any empathy at all.


If being distracted means that I'm not feeling empathy, then I should just NOT be distracted, right? But sometimes I feel like I'm living in a state of distraction. Follow the New Jersey Turnpike, make the first turn at the Suburb roundabout, have two kids and you'll be there too. I'm giving attention to my kids AND watching a pot on the stove. Or I'm thinking about what I have to do that day AND getting dressed AND watching my kids. I'm multitasking and that's good, right?

From Wikipedia, (Human) Multitaskingis "the apparent performance by an individual of handling more than one task at the same time. " 

When computers multitask, they are switching processing power between different tasks, multiple times per second. I'm not a computer, and I can't switch between different tasks that fast. So when I feel that I'm 'multitasking', I'm really only doing one thing at a time. I'm watching the pot on the stove, then turning to kiss my kids, then turning back to the stove. Sometimes, I hurt myself because I'm not giving enough attention to the one thing that I should be paying attention to.

Let me extend this thought to people and relationships; if I'm thinking about how fast I need to get to work or how much money I'll need to fix my car, I won't be feeling empathy. 


With my busy life (don't we all have busy lives?) I don't think I'm going to suddenly become any less distracted doing the daily scroll. What I can do, and make efforts to change, is to try to stop multitasking. If I pick only one thing to do at a time, then maybe I can do it with empathy. I can have empathy for the other drivers, for my kids, and for myself.

Do you multitask?


Monday, September 16, 2013

Buddhism, a New York monastery, and a trip back in time

This weekend I traveled to one of my favorite far-away places, a beautiful Buddhist temple in New York called Chuang Yen Monastery.

You can check out more pictures by clicking here.

The monastery is a place of real joy and calmness for me, and not just because of the beautiful landscape or the big Buddha statues. I received my first Buddhist teachings here in the form of weekly meditation lessons and group discussion from a Buddhist priest. In nice weather we would all sit on those very benches you see in the picture above, and talk. His name was Venerable Wisdom, and he's still teaching in Danbury, CT.


The teachings were often very practical in nature, and he would answer questions from the group such as, "How do I deal with my angry neighbors?" Other times, they were more about the teachings of the Buddha. I remember telling him, "I read something about Buddhism and women - that women could not reach (the ultimate goal of Buddhism) enlightenment." I asked him what he thought of that.

He told me that everyone makes their own effort towards enlightenment. It takes time, sometimes lifetimes to accomplish. Some of those lifetimes may be lived as women, some as men. "Why not focus on the gains you can make now, in this life, rather than worrying about someday?"

I still try to reach my goals a little at a time.


Now I come back here with my kids, to walk the grounds and to give my mind a chance to be calm again. It feels really, really good. I'm doing a little something toward my goal of a being a happier and more peaceful person.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Benefits to being open and vulnerable - I like myself even more this way

Today I was struck by the clear difference between the old-me and the new-me. The old-me avoided strangers - I used to think it wasn't important. It was unnecessary, a hassle, a bother. It wasn't fun and I could be putting myself at risk. It was scary.

I'd walk into a room full of people and run to the empty corner, sitting quietly and sorting through my purse or reading a magazine. 

The new me does things a lot differently.


Last weekend I walked into a doctor's waiting room. I was there to get a test done, and was in kind of a bad mood because I was anticipating an uncomfortable test (the kind where they poke and prod at you until the answers come out).

Walking into the waiting room I perked up, realizing that here was another chance for me to meet someone new and hear how they are living their amazing life. So I scoped out the room and spotted a young couple with a sleeping baby, and an older man dressed shabbily and reading a magazine. I chose the man because I understand that when entering a social arena people in sets of two usually don't like to be interrupted, but people alone are more approachable.

I chose well because he was in the mood to TALK. :)

Among all of the things he shared with me (his life, his kids, his grand-kids) he told me he was going in for a knee operation soon. "Really", I said, "I know some people who went through that recently. They told me that the operation was the best thing that ever happened to them, but that the rehab was challenging." (I found myself connecting with him and thinking about his feelings.) He was worried that they would botch the operation, but was really looking forward to having a new knee. He had been in the military (apparently that's where his knee was damaged) and said that he felt confident he could handle the rehab.

But then, he took the conversation to politics.

He said he wasn't happy about our recent health care reform laws. I could tell he was looking for me to nod my head and say "yeah, I agree." but I couldn't agree with him. "Here's where the rubber hits the road", I thought, "where who I am as a person may be different from what he expects, and he'll get mad or just stop talking to me." I've seen before that conversations (among friends or among strangers) will take a nose dive into anger and fighting when either politics or religion are brought up. If I stir up his negative feelings now (or my own) I'll kill the good vibe we've got going.*

I decided to leap in anyway. I said, "Hmm, yes lots of people feel that way." I tried to turn it around to him (since he seemed to like talking about himself) and said, "What concerns you about it?"

He told me of his brother-in-law Tony,** who had a plumbing business with a few employees. "Tony is going to have to pay $10,000 more!" His face turned to worry. "He told me he's going to have to lay-off some employees!" he said. He continued that he was worried about how much HE would have to pay under the law.

Instead of talking about the particular situation or the reasons I did or didn't agree with him, I was in empathy-mode so I was able to focus on his worried feelings. I looked down and said, "You know, I think we won't really know for sure how 'bad' things are going to be (or good) until the rest of the law comes into effect. You remember when HMOs were the 'big new thing that everyone was worried about?" He nodded. "That's not a big deal for anyone these days, but at the time I remember how upset everyone was about the new change."

He agreed with that, and we were able to move on to more conversations about his nephews (also in the marines). In general he seemed to be a happy man who is looking forward to having his new knee put in.


I really liked talking to this man, and I remember so much about him. Even though we only met once I feel like if I saw him again I'd want to connect with him some more.

I do really believe that all we take with us in this life are our memories. I like myself more now because living a more empathetic life has let me build some really, really great ones.

I like new-me, I think I'll keep her around awhile.


*I'm aware that there may be folks reading this who also don't approve of the new health care law, and may get mad or angry or want to debate me after reading this post. That's cool - feel free to use the comment section to tell me your thoughts. I'll start by saying that I'm not trying to convince anyone of my point of view.

**I don't remember the brother-in-law's name and even if I did, I probably shouldn't put it on the internet. :) So Tony he will be for this story.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Kids Show Review; Justin Time a.k.a. Facing fears of the new and different

I think that all of us, adults and children, are scared of new and different things. When I'm scared I make poor decisions. So I'm always looking for new ways to face the fear of the unknown.


My kids watch this show, called, "Justin Time". It's about this kid named Justin. When he has a problem, he goes into an imaginary world to solve it. Usually this 'other world' is in another time, but sometimes just in another part of today's world. He explores different cultures and learns lessons about how to deal with issues. You can see clips of this show on YouTube, here's one:

Although there are several aspects of the show that don't make logical sense to me*, what does make sense about this show (and the reason I'm sharing it with all of you) is the method this show uses to teach kids. It's tied to fear, and safety.

Most people (kids) won't accept something new and scary unless it's presented in a way that's palatable. For this show, they make it palatable by having everything new introduced by his imaginary best friend, Olive. Foreign languages, new animals, new foods, new ways of doing things; all made less scary by Olive's accompaniment. She's the grown-up among the kids, the friendly ear when things get a little confusing, and she always has ideas on how to help. Mostly the role she plays is to be comfortable; he knows her, so he won't get scared about what he's seeing. He knows it's all going to be okay. For a kid she's kind of like a security blanket, or a caregiver.

Most of us don't have such guides in our lives who can bridge the gap between ourselves and the new and different "other". When faced with a person of a different culture, or a new way of doing things, we have to be our own guide. I think part of the allure of saying "I'm a grown-up" is that I get to make my own decisions. One challenge of being a grown-up is that I have to be my own security blanket.


*My kids are obsessed with this show right now, which means I'm seeing it most days, sometimes multiple times in one day. As a result I've started to come up with some wild theories for how the show could make 'sci-fi' sense as a way of entertaining myself through the shows. 

One of my theories that amuses me greatly is that Olive is actually an alien or a time traveler from the future, who has taken it upon herself to teach Justin the 'ways of the world'. To accomplish her goal, she sent Justin a key (a toy pot of clay, who comes alive, named Squidgy) who she uses as a tool to temporarily enter his mind and teach him lessons. These lessons take no real time because of her time traveler abilities.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

At the pool; ignoring the fear impulse

The other day I was at a public pool. It was hot, and there were many other families there enjoying the summer sun.

I wear a wedding ring, and whenever I end up somewhere where random crime is more likely to happen (a NY City train, for example) I turn the ring around* so as to hide the center stone, and to avoid unwanted attention. To me, doing so is a means of protection, but I know it's also a sign of defensiveness. I'm scared, and I'm showing it. 

By the poolside, I caught myself several times turning my ring around. Every time someone of another skin color or culture walked by, my hand moved to my fingers. I believe that I was doing it unconsciously but I was determined to figure out why.


I was definitely uncomfortable being at this pool. I was in an unfamiliar place surrounded by people I didn't know. Where I used to live (New York City) I was always among people of different cultures and races. People mixed in offices and sat together on buses and walked down the street together and I wasn't scared. Sure, there were neighborhoods that I wouldn't want to walk through on a dark night alone, but mostly I felt safe there. People of color were just people.

Where I live now is fantastic; but most of them time I only see people of one color. I've been living here for a few years and I guess I've gotten used to it. I remember when I first moved here it was a bit of a shock how 'white' it was. Now at this pool it was another shock to be surrounded by different-looking people again.


The first time it happened I turned it, then thought, "Why did I do that? We're all just families here. Parents and kids and groups of friends. Nobody's threatening me."

The second time I turned it, then immediately turned it back. I was thinking about how one of these other people might feel if they saw me do it. They might feel judged. Unfairly so. 

The third time I caught myself in mid-reach. I was going to break this habit!

It took a lot of practice, but at least for that day, I didn't turn it again.


I firmly believe that all people, no matter how they look on the outside are just people (amazing people, as I've said before). I have habits (I think we all do) that communicate messages to others that they are not welcome. Even if my emotions tell me 'be scared' when my environment changes, that doesn't mean I have to act on them.

What habits do you have that send the 'wrong' message? What about the 'right' message?


*I grew up in New York City, and I learned several other 'habits' that have to do with protecting myself in public against unwanted threats or attention. The 'turning the ring' habit is just one. I also know that I lock doors whenever driving in unfamiliar neighborhoods, I look down and don't make eye contact when walking on a public street.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

I hate bad news - empathy for all

I hate bad news. Today I heard one of those horrible stories about people hurting each other. A terrible, horrible story of pain inflicted on other people. I just wanted to run away. I got mad, mad at the people who told me the story, mad at the reporter telling the story, and mad at the people who had committed these vile acts. Mad ma mad.

I stomped around my house, shouting at nobody, "how could they"?!? I may have even broken a drawer I opened it so fast and hard.

Then I calmed down. I remembered this story recently, about how psychopaths can turn on and off their empathy like a switch. 

They don't have any empathy for their victims, I thought. They could, if they chose to, but they don't.

One of the reasons that I practice empathy is so that it's natural for me. So that it becomes a part of who I am. So that I can live this life without hurting other people.

I also practice empathy every chance I get so that when I hear someone talk about hurting others, I won't turn away from them in anger.

So what does empathy mean for me?

It means that every time I meet a new person, I smile, I make eye contact, I say hello. I practice putting myself in their shoes. I make effort. I try not to judge.

It's about keeping my mind ON empathy, and not letting myself turn it off. Even for the most evil among us.


Monday, July 29, 2013

The Money-Empathy link

A few months ago, a study came out indicating that the more money we have, the less likely we would be empathetic. For reference you can check out the study itself or a cool video summarizing the study.


After reading the study and some really long, long articles I found this set of questions that are supposed to tell me how much money gets in the way of my own empathy practice. You can take the quiz yourself by going to this New Yorker article and skipping to the last page.

They asked me to solve a series of ethical problems...

Some of the quiz questions were easy, such as 'would you ever steal from the office' (NO). However one of the questions I spent a long time thinking about:

"After waiting in line for ten minutes to buy a coffee and walking half a mile away, you realize (coffee shop) mistakenly gave you change for a $20 bill instead for the $10 you gave them. You don't walk back to return the money. Would you do this? "

I thought about how I would feel. Perhaps it was a hot day, and I was sweaty and tired. Perhaps I was almost at work and there was a meeting starting soon. Perhaps I could just go back the next time I went to that same place, and return it later. Perhaps perhaps perhaps! So I answered that one 'maybe'. Maybe I would go back.

According to the authors of the article, the quiz concluded that "I was compassionate, when it was convenient."

Okay well as much as I don't like the idea of a quiz telling me who I am, the answer made sense to me. All of the reasons I listed for not going back and returning the money were because it wasn't 'convenient'. If I had just walked out of the coffee shop and realized the error, I would have walked right back in and fixed the error. My choice to not go back immediately may mean that someone could get in trouble for missing money. Maybe this was the third time it had happened, and now he would get fired. (So yeah, now I was feeling guilty about this hypothetical situation.)

If I were to push myself to be compassionate when it's not convenient, I'm saying that other people are just as important as I am. By not going back, I'm saying that I'm more important than the folks working in that coffee shop.


When it's easy, I am getting much better at practicing empathy. It's easy to be empathetic when I can see how we all are the same; how any one of us is not more important than any other. I can sow those seeds by choosing the harder road in situations like these. Maybe the next time I wouldn't act out of convenience. I would act to do what was right - and return the money right away.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Empathy for our children (guest post)

Parents today are very concerned about empathy, especially when it comes to their children. They not only want their children to be empathetic but they also want others to empathize with their children. This is a wonderful hope and it is one that it is a tough task these days. Reality shows are making it a business for judges to rip contestants apart right in our very homes, and a culture of non-empathy has taken center stage! We can create an opportunity for our pre-American Idol contestants to learn empathy if given the right guidance and time.   

Children are born with their own aptitudes and intelligence. Those parts of their personality that are raw talents will need support in order to grow. While some children may have strengths in math, music, language or physical skills others might come with a wonderful sense of empathy or having strong interpersonal skills. Just like natural athletes or leaders, some children really are natural empathize-rs! These children are sometimes lovingly named “old souls” and are often delight adults with their insight and maturity.

For most children empathy just takes time to develop. Its presence fluctuates as we grow and as it is tested. Empathy can appear at different times for different individuals; for some it can be from a life changing moment or experience, as a result of a series of discussions, relating to a character in a book, or travel. For others it can grow from children making connections (both good and bad) such as navigating through friendships, dating, and many types of social situations. In almost all cases it takes hindsight and careful reflection to develop empathy. 

It can help when children see their parents and caregivers showing empathy to others, reading and sharing appropriate developmental stories that exemplify empathy, or discussing a character’s actions on a television program. We can help them to think aloud about how they empathize with others, or how we struggle ourselves with empathy and to put empathy into practice through language and action.


I do caution parents not to push and set unrealistic expectations about what children are able to do at appropriate developmental times. Children are learners and they must go through developmental periods and experiences in order to work out and make sense of empathy. 
Characters like Tiny Tim in the story “A Christmas Carol” come to mind when I consider how we can perpetuate unrealistic expectations of children and empathy. Tiny Tim is physically challenged, he is poor, his father is tortured by his boss (Scrooge) and is also forced to work on Christmas Eve. Yet, Tiny Tim is not angry or sad but is able to recognize and articulate that Christmas was not about the presents but about family and being kind to each other. I have heard countless questions from parents, hoping to see this type of empathy from their young children (yes a parent wanted to know if their two year old could possess this understanding!). This type of insight about human behavior and the true meaning about what we really need for most children is not reasonable to expect. For most parents my answer is “they are not ready to achieve that level of empathy”. Parents can help to guide children to understanding empathy by allowing them to create a sense a self (this means that the “mine” stage at two years old is okay and developmentally appropriate!). As children grow, we can create opportunities and choose balanced approaches when it comes to giving and taking. Some ways to do this are to:

  1. Give children realistic choices of when their needs must be met and when it is time to give or understand the needs of others.
  1. Discuss characters in books and TV shows about how their choices affect others.
  1. Allow children to understand empathy at their level (they may not verbalize it but can show it or can draw a picture). Do not expect a child to show empathy the way an adult does.
  1. Give them opportunities to help, especially when there is a crisis situation.  Sending a card or picking out a gift to someone who might need it can be just enough to get children thinking about others. 

Parents and caregivers should know that empathetic behavior can be fleeting and then return again at another time – In essence, empathy is a practice to wield emotional power and children must be able to work with what they have got and learn to use it in their own time and in their own way.
Today’s entry is a guest post by my good friend and brilliant education consultant, Sara Lise Raff. Sara Lise consults in New York City and also writes helpful advice on her blog, Ask the Educator.

Please share your comments below, and thanks for reading.

- Janet

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

With a little help from my friends

This past weekend was a holiday weekend, and it was full of truly fantastic moments. I had lots of time with friends and family, getting outside and enjoying the weather. I even saw a beautiful rainbow, and this is how it looked just before it disappeared. (yay!)

Also, I sliced my hand with a knife. (boo!)

I was being foolish, really. I was attempting to cut a watermelon the wrong way (note, this is not quite like carrying a watermelon) and the knife slipped a bit further than I wanted it to.

I stood at the sink, water running over my hand and trying to get my head straight over what had happened and what was I going to do and how badly was I hurt. I couldn't look at it. I've heard you are supposed to put pressure on these things, so I did. There wasn't much pain but I was very woozy. I was scared, I thought I had hurt myself very badly. I didn't know - maybe I needed to go to a hospital and get stitches. Thoughts about 'what would I do about the kids' and 'oh gosh I've not done this to myself in a long time' were running through my head.

I asked for help.

Thankfully I had friends nearby, friends who knew first-aid and could offer assistance. They were there for me, and I'm so very grateful for their help.

Physically they helped by showing me how to stop the bleeding, by moving me somewhere restful and by keeping the kids happy elsewhere while I recovered. Thankfully I didn't need an emergency room.

Mentally, my friends and family helped by gathering around and saying all sorts of wonderfully supportive things. They reassured me that I was going to be fine, they told me that I didn't need to worry about anything, that they would help. They asked me how I was feeling, and listened. They held my hand and made me feel better.


As I was being cared for so well, I couldn't help but think about other times I was in pain, times when I was around folks who were 'less than helpful'.

For example, I've had people compare my situation to other people's. Have you had this happen to you? "Oh, look at that, your leg was hit by that hockey puck. It's swelling to the size of a baseball. My friend had that once, and he was in the hospital for three days. Yours doesn't look as bad." The author of this article calls the above kind of comment the trap of 'Even Worse'. I felt even more hurt when hearing these comments, because I felt like they were telling me that my feelings of hurt and pain were not valid.

When I'm hurt, I may cognitively understand that there are plenty of people in the world who are hurting more than I am. Emotionally on the other hand I need to get past my own hurt before I can recognize others' pain.

If I try to put myself into these people's shoes, I remember how it feels when someone I know is hurting. I want to help in any way I can. One thing I've tried to do, and perhaps this is the reason that people say these things, is to distract them from the pain. From the outside I think 'distraction is good'.  From the inside, I believe that the pain is sometimes worse when I try to ignore it. I have to look my pain right in the eye and say 'yes, I'm hurting' to move past it.


What kinds of things do you say to people who are hurt? What do you want to hear when you are in pain?


Friday, June 28, 2013

Empathy and anger

This week I heard a few stories that struck me. First, over the weekend I had a close friend tell me about an argument she had with her mom. She had yelled at her, and said some nasty things. Then she said to me, "I'm mad. Empathize with THAT."*

A few days later I heard another story on the news, about a gang war in New York City. A boy was murdered in a drive by shooting, and one gang took the credit on a video on youtube. In the video they rapped and sang and said, "Put yourself in my shoes, wouldn't you be angry too?"

What both of these stories have in common, to me, is that they are about overreacting to anger. When I get angry, I know I react in strong ways - sometimes I hurt people. Sometimes I act stupidly and hurt myself (stubbing my own toe in anger is something I've done more than once. Ow.) Although these stories are very different, I also believe that both people were asking the listener for something, too. "I'm mad" they say, "so you should be mad too." I think they are asking me to say what they did was all-right. To me, that's going beyond empathy.


When a person asks you to 'empathize' with them, they say that they want you to KNOW how they feel. "If you only knew how I was feeling!"

I believe that the point is to try to be in their shoes - but maybe I won't actually get there. The point is not to justify their behavior, but just to listen. Empathy helps me to remove judgments, and to learn about how others live and survive in this world. Ultimately it helps me to be there for another person. Hopefully I can help them feel like they are not alone.

If I had a chance to talk to this rapper boy in this gang, maybe I could ask him about how he felt that day. If they say they were angry, I can feel angry too and I can bring up those feelings when I talk to them. I can try to feel what they feel. I can try to not say the words, "what you did was justified."

Have you tried to listen to someone recently? Have you been there for someone in need? How did it go?


* For my friend's sake, I did try to listen to what she was saying. I commented about how it sounded like she was really mad (trying for empathy). My next sentence was something like, "yeah, well, and I see what she did and why it made you mad." In hindsight, I don't think that what I said was good - I was essentially justifying their bad behavior. Hopefully next time I can keep my mouth shut, or figure out how to say something better.. :)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Empathy - moments in friendship

I have found that since starting this process that my experiences are not the large, life changing experiences I had at the beginning. Instead I've found that by reviewing my days I can find little moments of empathy where I try to make the best choices I can.

Empathy Moment - secrets and friends

I've got a few people in my life who I'm not close to, but I would like to be close to. I'm doing my best to build a friendship with each of them and empathy often plays a role.

This week one of these want-to-be-friends of mine revealed something about himself that I didn't previously know. It was a secret - and a big one. Something he'd been hiding from me intentionally.

At first, I reacted with feelings. Feelings of betrayal (how could you NOT tell ME FIRST!!!) feelings of low self-worth (don't you LIKE ME?!?). Etcetera, all of the normal stuff that arises before I have a chance to think about it.

Then I tried to put myself in their place. I remembered what I knew about this person. He calls himself  'closed off' and 'restrained'. He keeps his thoughts and feelings close and rarely lets people in.

Thinking about this reminded me of the way I used to feel about wearing clothes. I used to think that if I dressed in loose clothing, nobody would judge me for how my body looked. If they couldn't see it, I reasoned, they couldn't judge it. Lately I've realized that people will judge me based on exactly what they see, on exactly what I show them. If I show them baggy, hiding clothes then maybe they will judge me as a person who had something to hide.

Although I've made the conscious choice to be more open than I've ever been, I do remember what it felt like to hide behind baggy tee-shirts. It felt safe, and it felt like I wasn't going to be judged.

So I choose not to judge him for his choices. I left myself with the space to be there for him, and to step away from my selfishness. 

And I hope we can be closer in the future.

Are you more open, or closed? Who are you drawn to being friends with?


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Everyone is Awesome and I Shouldn't Judge Them

Back in January, I wrote this post about building empathy with people. I talked about how keeping a mantra in mind, such as 'I love you, man' really made it easier to care about other people. This worked particularly well for strangers I just met, people I didn't know at all.

Earlier this week I had another thought that I think builds on this idea. If I love someone, a friend or a relative for example, I wouldn't judge them based on their appearance. If they looked good, I was happy for them. I've noticed that sometimes, when I see another person who's appearance is different from mine, I confess I've had thoughts of either judgement or jealousy. Instead of looking past what I was seeing (which is what I would do if I truly loved them, as a friend or a relative) I would be focusing on it.

This never happens with friends or relatives; just with people I don't know. People walking down the street or strangers at a party. For friends or relatives, I don't immediately judge them. I simply note it and move on, because I love them.


Of course, now that I see the behavior I'm trying to fix it. For the last week I've been consciously attempting to not judge people I don't know based on their appearance. I'm using two different 'tools' to accomplish this.


Tool #1 - Simpler; I don't talk about what a person is wearing.

When meeting a stranger, the way a person looks can tell you a lot about them. I'm looking at what they wear, their weight, their skin color, their apparent gender, their clothing appearance (shabby or pressed), their jewelry. I look. In the past, I have even used what a person is wearing to open up a conversation with "Oh, what a lovely necklace". I'm consciously trying to stop all of that by opening up every conversation with something NOT related to their looks.

It's hard but it seems to be working - it helps me to focus on what the person introducing us is saying like, "oh, have you met Bob, he's my friend from Georgia." or "Hi I'm Pamela I'm here with Manny from the city." By staying focused on them as a person and not on what they are wearing (good or bad), I can distract myself from looking at and therefore thinking about their appearance.

Here's a great article I read recently on an example of this, talking about approaching little girls and NOT immediately complimenting them on how cute they are.

Tool #2 - Focus on how amazing the person is.

Everyone, all people in this world (no matter how fantastic their life is) are facing some kind of challenge in their lives. We all hurt. Also, we all are reminded regularly how much pain and suffering there is in this world. I find it amazing that each day we can put that all aside and live, and survive, and even thrive. I look at everyone and think that we are all just awesome people for managing this crazy thing we call life. We are all finding ways to meet challenges - from the horrors of war to the challenges of just getting out of bed in the morning.

You are amazing. Yes you, the person reading this blog post. You are awesome!

Just for you being you - it's TIME TO DANCE!!!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Truth; failure to listen

The other day I interacted with two different people. Let's call them Katie and Rudy. Both were strangers, and both were with me only for a short time on the same day (but at different times). When I met Katie, I noticed that she was open, chatty and friendly. We engaged in conversation for a good long while. She told me about her life, I told her about mine. We gave each other advice.

Later that day I met Rudy. Rudy was also a stranger, but I noticed right away that she was more distant than Katie. She avoided making eye contact, she answered my casual questions and then shut down, and pretty much did everything another person can do to end a conversation politely.

I had so much fun interacting with Katie that when I met Rudy I wanted the same kind of fun. I didn't know how to react to this different persona, so I pushed myself at her. I tried asking her questions, I tried starting up new topics, I tried telling her about myself in the hopes of drawing her in. Nothing seemed to work.

After Rudy walked away, I jumped to the conclusion that either she didn't like me (hey, it's possible) or just didn't want to connect. I tried to figure out what was wrong with her, "Maybe she was having a bad day." or "Maybe she was simply not feeling conversational." I was only thinking about what she was doing wrong. Etcetera.


For those of you who've read my blog before perhaps you see where this is going. I'm sure there was nothing wrong with Rudy, or if there was, that wasn't the issue at hand. The problem was me. I wasn't paying attention to Rudy at all; I wasn't empathizing with her. Katie made talking to so, so easy that when confronted with Rudy I forgot that I needed to do actual work. It takes effort to be empathetic; it rarely comes naturally. Instead of listening, I was caught in the trap of simply talking AT her. In hindsight I remember that people don't want to be talked AT. If they want to be talked AT they will go home and watch the news.

I find it so hard to remember sometimes how to keep the focus on empathy when interacting with people. It's been my experience so far that most people do want to connect, but they need a reason. They need to believe that they will be heard and that they will be listened to - and I wasn't listening.

It's so, so important to listen.

So I'm sorry Rudy and anyone else I may not have listened to enough. I'm going to keep trying harder to open my ears instead of my mouth.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Cake Decorating Practice

The other day, a friend of mine asked me to make the dessert for her daughter's 10th birthday party. I happily accepted a chance to make someone happy AND practice my cake decorating skills. For your amusement, here I take you through the process step by step. I do feel like I'm getting better every time, and I so love this. Making cakes is making edible art. Everything is gone at the end except the memories. Whatever I create will be destroyed, so it is temporary art. Kind of like sushi, I guess. Except no fish. :)

The Design

We met at a local coffee shop and talked about details. What kind of cake, what kind of filling, what kind of decorations. I borrowed crayons from my kids, and used a pad to sketch out ideas. Here's the result:

In case you can't read my handwriting she decided to do a 'springtime' theme; including bugs and butterflies and flowers. The cake would be cupcakes, chocolate with raspberry filling and raspberry icing. The icing would be purple, her favorite color. I also tried to show her in my drawing what the result would look like, hence the blue sketch in the lower left corner.

The Plan

I had done flowers before so I wasn't worried about that, and I had an idea for making caterpillars using a snow-man style method (stacking up balls and squishing down). I was, however, not sure about the butterflies.

In the cake decorating blogs and articles I've read, the hardest thing about butterflies is that you are either going super-realistic or cartoony, but not both. I would have to choose my method before I began.


One way to do butterflies is to be realistic, say, by taking pre-printed edible rice paper and cutting out butterfly shapes. These shapes can then be bent and molded to look like butterflies have landed on your cake. Here's an example from cakecentral.com. I even went to the store and looked at options for edible paper; but in the end, I decided not to go that way. Firstly, it wasn't 'created by me', it would have been someone else's pattern or design. Secondly it wouldn't have worked with the other items I was doing, the caterpillars were going to be more cartoony than realistic. Third, it was for a kid's party and I thought that was leaving 'springtime fun' and moving into 'elegant' which didn't fit the theme.

So I decided to go cartoony. I even got candy eyes and decorated them with chocolate candy dots.

Several hours later.... here's my result.

The Finished Dessert

Again, I had an amazing time preparing this for my friend and seeing the final product come to life. The look on the birthday girl's face was something I'm not going to forget for a very long time. She wanted to know what she could eat (everything on the cupcakes) and which one she could have (I made a special daisy that she chose, you can see it in the center of the larger cupcakes). All the kids loved them. I can tell because they ate both the cupcakes and the frosting, and they came back for seconds. Usually that's a good sign!

Here's a few pictures of the finished product. Note that I included a few toy bugs as supplementary design elements, you can tell the difference because the toys are on the tablecloth/plate.

The mini cupcakes were also chocolate, but didn't have any filling.

Thanks for reading! Please add your thoughts below. Are you practicing a new skill too?


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Case Against Empathy - an email discussion with Paul Bloom

This week, I read Paul Bloom's article, "The Baby in the Well" from 5/20/2013's issue of the New Yorker, subtitled, "The Case Against Empathy". I was very upset after reading it, so I thought it would be a good idea to try to talk to him, ask him where he was coming from and try to understand the article. To be empathetic instead of angry, similar to what I had done with my facebook friend

I was upset because the article seemed to be trying to encourage people not to use empathy. The article called empathy "narrow-minded", and a poor choice to use when making decisions. I confronted him about each of these ideas. 

What I learned from our conversation was that again, if I can put aside my feelings and actually listen to what people have to say, I find that we are really not so far apart as I thought we were. 

I also think that our discussion brings to me an idea - that there is a difference between conscious empathy and unconscious empathy. I'm going to be thinking about this and maybe I'll have a future post about it too. 

For your amusement, here's a few excerpts of our discussion. Have you pushed yourself to talk to someone who disagrees with you, and see if you can come to agreement? Where did it lead?

Thanks for reading,


[Janet] wrote:
Hello Mr. Bloom,
I read your article, "The Baby in the Well", and I have some questions for you. I'm hoping you will take a few moments to answer them, as I'm not entirely clear on your message. 
...if I am interpreting your article correctly, you may be encouraging people to dismiss empathy as a force for change....

...you call empathy 'narrow-minded', and you then make the case that being narrow-minded is a bad thing. ... I agree that it's limiting to focus empathy on one, identifiable person rather than a group. However, saying this is bad seems to ignore the possibility that a person could choose to give nothing at all....I believe that a person, like me, will only begin to give if we are moved to do so. I'm generous when I think about it but selfish by nature - I focus my resources on my life, my family, my money and my friends. If I'm going to part with my hard earned money and the time I have so little of, I must have empathy first.   

...Empathy empowers people to take action...

...I believe that people are easily overwhelmed by all of the horrible ways that beings suffer in our world. There's this fantastic line in one of my favorite movies, Ever After. Have you seen it? The king's son says, "I used to think that if I cared about anything I would have to care about everything." It was only after the character found a cause to support that he was able to move forward, and actually help people. I think I'm a little bit like that too. I think 'there's no way I can help, I'm just one person.' I stop feeling overwhelmed, however, if I focus on one small thing. By focusing my attention I'm able to find a way to use my mind to help.

[Paul Bloom] wrote:

....I'm not entirely against empathy -- as I mention at the end of the article, I think it's essential for intimate relationships....

...I agree that empathy has driven people to do wonderful things. But, as I discuss in my article, it has also motivated terrible things, such as savage punishments that are driven by empathy for victims. See also here, 2nd paragraph:

...My argument is that empathy is often inadequate for policy decisions. You simply can't emphasize with a billion people; or with people who don't yet exist; empathy is insensitive to number and it's statistically stupid. ... I'm calling for people to use other moral faculties instead, such as self-control, perspective taking, rational deliberation, notions of fairness, justice, and impartiality, and conceptions of human rights. 
[Janet] wrote:

I understand your point now, I think. You agree that empathy is good on a one-person-to-one-person level. However, when we use empathy to push for mass policy change we make poor choices. I agree with this, in general, as it does seem impossible to me that I could empathize with people-not-yet-born or entire civilizations of people. 

I also agree that people do punish more harshly when they empathize with the victim, or punish less harshly when they empathize with the criminal.  However, this doesn't make me think that we should have less empathy. It makes me think we need more. If instead of empathizing for one side or another I empathize with both sides, then I have a chance to use my brain to make the best decision. It's the perspective-taking that you are talking about. I'm intentionally choosing to find a way to empathize not only with Tsarnaev but also with the eight year old boy victim. I think it's possible for people to develop their empathy so they see both sides of a situation. What do you think?

[Paul Bloom] wrote: 
I think we're mostly in agreement here. I think empathy can be very useful for certain more "local" problems, as in the story of you and tailgaters; it's often the moral thing to try, as you nicely put it, "being two people at once". 

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