How to Respond with Compassion

A few months back, I came across an article on Sarah Silverman. She’d had an interesting interaction with someone on Twitter: the person had used a profanity-laced tweet to insult her. People expected her typical reaction, which would be for her to throw an insult right back, as she’s known for her comedic takedowns.

But she didn’t.

Instead, she paused, scrolled through this person’s Twitter, and gained a real understanding of where this was coming from.

What she found was a person suffering from both physical and emotional pain. She replied with vulnerability and compassion, which turned the entire conversation around. She could have easily reacted to his insult, dropped a few F-bombs on him, and walked away. But there was a moment when she paused before reacting and probably thought, “What is causing this man to express so much hate?” and curiosity took her in a different direction.

We have become so reactive as a society that we no longer take the moment to pause and ask ourselves, “what’s at the root of this?”

What I loved about Sarah Silverman’s response was that she was direct. She told him that she knew his rage was “thinly veiled pain” and that she understood how that felt. He stopped fighting and it opened up a new conversation, one that got down to the core of who this man could choose to be. That was the moment the conversation changed when she empathized with him. That’s the missing piece that, as a society, we need to learn, embrace, and practice more often.

What most people don’t realize is that at the root of this reactive process is judgment.

What I realized as I began coaching is that this process isn’t just our emotional reaction to hateful things, rather it’s our coping mechanism when we see or hear something we dislike or disagree with. In her book, Judgment Detox, Gabby Bernstein defines judgment as “separation from love”. At the core of it, judgment prevents us from understanding others, and therefore, truly understanding ourselves.

It’s not just how we react to hate either; it’s our response to everything. In Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown talks about this emotional reactive response when it comes to political correctness, or what she calls, inclusive language. First, she talks about how the term “political correctness” has become such a loaded term. She then writes, “[...] what’s tough about the inclusive language movement is when people turn using the right language into a weapon to shame or belittle people. [...] Even tools of civility can become weaponized if the intention is there.

Why have we become so reactive that even when we’re trying to do something good, we end up doing harm? Why are we afraid of truly understanding others? Honestly, it’s because it’s hard work. Often when we choose to understand another’s pain, we are asked to confront our own. When we come face-to-face with the discomfort of change, we would rather not go there. It feels more comfortable to pretend to be right than to admit we don’t know. So, how do we do that?

Three Ways to Begin Responding with Empathy

Photo by  Andrea Tummons

Pause & Take Note of Your Reaction

What is your immediate reaction to different situations? They can be something as minor as seeing a political news story on TV or hearing about someone you know getting married. I know many ladies my age that feel sickened every time they see another one of their friends getting engaged, but why? If you feel bad for something that should make you feel excited for someone you care about, that says more about you than them. Take some inventory, build some self-awareness, and use that information to understand these initial reactions.

When I decided to leave teaching to become a life coach, the decision came from within. I knew in my gut that it was the right decision. I was dreading having to tell my students, mostly because there were so many of us that were leaving that year and didn’t want to upset them even more with the news of my departure. To my surprise, they were SO EXCITED for me. Sure, they were a bit sad, but they said that it sounded like I was leaving teaching for something I was born to do. In contrast, when I told adults the same news, many of them reacted with words of caution and doubt. The truth is that it didn’t bother me what they thought, but it took many years of following my intuition to understand that their reaction told me more about them than about my decision to switch careers.


Remind Yourself You Don’t Know Everything

Many of us, myself included, can hold back from sharing when we’re going through difficult times. Everyone is going through something that we cannot see, whether it’s a financial hardship or a lack of sleep from being a new parent, there’s a range of things that can make our interactions a bit rough. When I was teaching, if one of my kids got a bit snappy with me, the first thing I would try to find out is whether or not they had gotten enough sleep, had something to eat, or had a big test coming up. Usually, it was one of those three things that were influencing their mood and I would respond accordingly. Sometimes, there was something a bit more difficult going on. Adults go through the same things. Be mindful and get more information before jumping to conclusions.


We Are All Pretending

A few years back, I attended a TEDx event. While I love watching them online, there’s a palpable difference between watching it at home versus being at a live event. There was one talk that has stuck with me. For one, the speaker had great presence on stage. He took command of the room, spoke clearly, and had a message that resonated with everyone in the audience. At one point he said, “Let me clarify something… Am I talking to an audience that’s mostly adults? Oh no, I’m not. I’m talking to the kid inside you that’s masquerading as an adult”. I kid you not, it struck SUCH a strong chord with everyone in the audience, that we all gasped. He said the thing we are all thinking, but no one wanted to admit. The guy next to me was like, “Oh shiiiiiiiiiiiiit”.


Photo by  Robert Baker

Photo by Robert Baker

At the end of the day, we are all making mistakes and learning from them. We are all trying to figure things out. Getting older doesn’t necessarily mean being older AND wiser. What it means is that we have the option of not making the same mistake twice. One of the biggest things we can learn to do is to choose to react with love, empathy, and understanding. I’m sure we can all think of a time when we wished we would have gotten the full story before jumping to conclusions, often leading to apologies, or at worse, avoidance. If we all practiced this a bit more, we can all have more moments like Sarah Silverman did and start building a better world.