Tuesday, January 27, 2015

7 point three billion people

As of this writing, the World Population Clock tells me that there about 7.3 billion people on the planet. That's an enormous amount of people.

Growing up in New York City, something I used to hear was, "If you want to do something on a Saturday in NY, chances are that at least 10,000 other people have had the exact same idea."  To me, it's not about the number of people out there, it's about how many of them are having the same idea that I have. They are reaching out. Maybe they feel alone, and they want to connect too.


I know that I'm alone in my own mind. The feelings we feel are personal, and only make sense to the person who is feeling them.

In the below video, you'll see a summary of how we see colors. The red that I think I see, is maybe not the same red that you think you see. I'm not you; so I don't know if we're observing it the same way.

I think that the feelings we feel are (like the colors) something that we can't know just by looking at a person. 

When I see you crying; I can't say 'you are sad'. I don't know why you cry. I don't know what it's like to feel things the same way that you feel things, I can't. I don't know what sadness feels like to you any more than I know what red is to you. I don't know what your 'sad' or 'happy' feels like.


What I do know is that all 7.2 billion of us have felt sad and happy at some point in our lives; and all of us know what feeling sad and happy means to us. So if I see someone crying, I can't say I know that they are sad. Maybe they just have something stuck in their eye. If I see someone laughing, I can't say I know that they are happy.

All I can do is ask them how they are feeling. Maybe they will tell me.

What does feeling happy feel like for you?


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Practicing empathy with my children - two great ideas

I've heard it from other parents and I say it to myself. My kids drive me crazy sometimes.

"Put away your shoes ," I say. "No" they say back. Or I say, "Please go wash your hands, they are filthy." "No, they're not, I'm gonna go play." Etcetera. Every second of every day, over and over again, most conversations are arguments. The battlefield is our kitchen and every household chore hides a landmine. I'm getting back everything I ever said to my mother and I'm getting it in chorus (from both my girls, as they sing "I don't wanna do my home---work" to the tune of "Do you want to build a snow-man?").

A while ago I asked a friend of mine to write a guest post for us about building empathy in children. I asked her to write for me for two reasons; first, she's an expert with kids and parents. Second; I had no idea how to start building empathy for my own growing children. They were 6 and 2, at the time, and I was totally lost.

Ever since then I've been thinking about it; I've been reading articles and listening to podcasts, all trying to find a way to connect with them and to break the argument cycle. As my kids get older I think, are they ready? Can I try to build some empathy in them, or have empathy for them?

Recently, I came across a quick sequence of podcasts talking about empathy and kids, by Dr. Charles Ray of the Love & Logic Institute*.

RSS Feed for the podcasts.
Or click to hear Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 (each one is about 10 minutes long).

Dr. Fay is a little cheesy but he talks a good talk. He said:

- We lose our patience with our kids
- Losing our patience means we get mad, we get emotional, and
- When we yell, we hurt our relationship with our kids
- Breaking the argument cycle is about having that good relationship, and about building empathy 

I took two thoughts away from the podcast that have really, REALLY helped me to slow down the arguing and fighting. I don't do them all the time, but so far these two have brought a ton of empathy into my house.

"I love you too much to argue." If my child takes the fight to me ("No, I don't want to eat my vegetables.") I can fight back, sure. However, if I do fight back I'm telling them, "Yes, this is a problem between you and me". Instead of engaging them, I should pretend I'm just the messenger of the rule. I have to take myself out of the equation; I'm just the one letting them know what the rules are, and the consequences of those rules. In the end it's their problem to solve. I can help them solve it by having empathy for their situation, but it's not my job to convince them the rule is correct.

The sticky note technique. Let's say I want to remember to have empathy for my kids and not to argue with them. The idea is to pick an empathetic statement, and use it over and over again. If I need to, I can put the phrase on sticky notes and paste them up all around the house. Empathetic statements are things like, "Ohhhh, man. how sad." Or "Ohhhhh. I know." 


I've been using these two ideas together for about two weeks now, and I've been surprised how well they work.

I saw my 3-year old daughter get up from the table with all of her food left. I said, "What are you doing, you still have food in your bowl." She said, "I'm all done, I don't want anymore." I looked at her and I said, "Ohhhhh, I know. I know you don't want anymore." I just looked at her. She looked back. And miracle of miracles; instead of arguing, she just sat back at the table and ate her food.

Seriously! It worked really well! One empathetic statement cut the fight off at the knees.


As a parting thought; I know darn well that if I try to do one of these things when I'm mad, or stressed, or tired, I should just forget it. I've talked before about how hard it is to feel empathy when some other feeling is overwhelming me (like anger, or fear). As a result, if I'm already ticked off and ready to explode, this doesn't really happen.  I just know that it's a great tool for my parenting toolbox.

For those of you who are caregivers, do you fight with those you care for? What tools are in your toolbox to stop the arguing? Please add your thoughts in the comments below.


*Love & Logic is a company, so they ask for money for their services (seminars, videos, etc.). The podcasts are free, and I didn't get any money from them for writing this.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Empathy, Race and Trials - the downside of unconscious empathy

I've been thinking this week about unconscious empathy. Unconscious empathy is when I feel an immediate connection with a person - maybe because I see or hear something about them that reminds me of myself.  This kind of empathy is not intentional; and because it's not intentional I believe that it's just too easy for me to make mistakes when doing it.


In 2014, there were a lot of news stories about how people like me, white Americans, are racist. The articles talk about how we treat people unconsciously with bias and disrespect. We walk on the other side of the street from people of a different race. We glare at strangers with hoodies walking through our neighborhoods.

I connect this with empathy because in these examples, we are not empathizing with the people we see at all. I see this because in the same way that I automatically empathize with those who are like me, I do not automatically empathize with those people who are unlike me. It's not done on purpose; I'm not thinking about my behavior. I'm just doing it.

If I don't empathize with the person who is unlike me, I am more likely to treat them with disrespect. This comes to mind when I think about the extreme examples; the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent decision not to bring the case to trial, and the killing of Eric Garner and the dismissal of charges against the police officer. I don't know what happened in those cases any more than you do; but I do know that if I have empathy for someone, I don't want to hurt them. How can I? They are like me.

This lack of empathy by me (one person) can grow from something small to something big when I think about how it affects the system at large, for example, when I consider a trial by jury.

I found this great article on Juror Empathy and Race by Professor Douglas O. Linder*. He makes a lot of interesting points about how juries are generally more empathetic towards the defendant (or the victim) if they share the same race. A jury is told to treat everyone equally, and to only listen to the facts of a case. Yet in case after case, it appears that we still act unconsciously to have more empathy to those who are like us, and to have less empathy for those who are unlike us. Men with less empathy to women. Whites with less empathy to people of color. Cisgender with less empathy for transgender. Etc.

A long time ago I told a story about how I had empathy for a mom at the airport, and how I felt drawn to help her. I look back on that story and think, "what a great example of unconscious empathy". I'm just not sure anymore if it's a good story or a bad one; if it's good, it's good because I helped that woman. If it's a bad story, it's because it tells me that if I was put on a jury, I too could make a bad choice. If a mom committed a crime, would I be less likely to convict her? What about someone who was accused of hurting a child, would I be more likely to convict them?


One of the other interesting points in the article is that educated people are less likely to be chosen for a jury. I don't agree with excluding this group. If I'm on trial, I would want a jury of people who spend more time thinking, and less time reacting. I would want someone judging me who was aware of the unconscious biases in our culture, and was prepared to go against them.


*http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/juryseminar/JurorEmpathy.html by Douglas O. Linder link pulled 1/6/2015