Getting Yourself Out Of The Way: The Self-Vigilant Coach – Part Two – Projection In Health & Wellness Coaching

Projection – A Freudian Classic

Our previous blog post: Getting Yourself Out Of The Way: The Self-Vigilant Coach – Part One (https://wp.me/pUi2y-mu)  explored the many ways in which the coach can interfere in the coaching process and “get in the way” of the client’s own coaching work. Our own agendas, attitudes, beliefs, prejudices, projections and unfinished emotional business can all impede the coaching process. In this second part of the two-part series we’ll examine the complex concept of projection in coaching.

Projection

Another pitfall for the coach to be aware of is our tendency to project onto other people emotions that are really our own. A classic defense mechanism, psychological projection is when we attribute to others feelings of our own that we find unacceptable. The most common example is when we have unwanted feelings of anger and instead see hostile and aggressive qualities in the behavior and affect of others.

A broader understanding of projection, and a less pathological one, is that we project onto others not only negative qualities (anger, guilt, shame, etc.), but positive ones as well. These are positive qualities that we do not believe that we fully possess, but we ascribe them to the other person (successfulness, popularity, self-confidence, etc.). We can also include in projection the type of hopes, beliefs and dreams we have. We may want to believe that our client feels as passionately about exercise or meditating as we do! We may proceed with our coaching operating as though our client is fully on board with our wellness prescription for them. Conversely, as we have struggled for years with weight loss or smoking cessation, we project the same degree of difficulty onto our client’s experience, when, perhaps for them, that challenge is nowhere near as great. We fall into the trap of making assumptions, believing that other see the world just as we do.

 

We can also project our prejudices. If we come from a blue-collar working-class upbringing, we may think that our wealthy upper-class client has an easy life and knows little of heartache and struggle. We may withhold our empathy when it is really needed. We may completely underestimate the potential of our client because of their social status, gender, race or ethnicity and not treat them as being “naturally creative, resourceful and whole.” (http://www.coactive.com/learning-hub/fundamentals/res/FUN-Topics/FUN-The-Co-Active-Model.pdf)

 

If It Were Me…

A basic human tendency is to attempt to understand others by asking ourselves How would I feel/What would I do, if I was experiencing that? We put ourselves in their situation, and instead of going into a place of empathic understanding, we project our own feelings, conclusions, solutions onto the other person. We “know” what they ought to do! Perhaps our own work history includes supervisors who were bullies. Without realizing it we may hear our client’s story of conflict with their team leader and translate what we hear into a story of brutal abuse. We may then operate on the feelings this generates and steer the client towards taking extreme action to deal with a rather mild situation. For the client it was what we might call at one-dollar item, but we project a situation worth $100.00 plus change!

 

Our Own “Stuff”

Coaches may also project onto their clients the struggles and growth processes that they are currently engaged in and faced with. The coach who is exploring healing their own family of origin issues may see a need for this in many of the clients that they see. They may mistakenly think that the therapeutic process that is helping them so much is the panacea for all clients. They may start bleeding the techniques of their favorite self-help therapy book into the coaching that they do. The self-deception is that they may still think that they are doing coaching.

Perhaps the most disastrous type of interactions occurs when we project in such a way that we relate to another person as though they were someone else. Perhaps you’ve had this happen to you in your own life. Someone you’ve met recently keeps ascribing to you qualities that you exhibit very little of. They see you as self-centered, a braggart, trying to impress others, when all you did was share a couple of tidbits of what you knew about some subject. The problem is, you remind them of their brother, sister, ex-partner, former employer, second grade teacher, college roommate, army buddy, etc. who continually played the know-it-all role. Now all of the terrible qualities of that other person get projected onto you whether you deserve them or not!

Could the client who seems to bother us in ways that we find hard to explain be the unfortunate recipient of our projection? Do they remind us of someone else; a personal relationship from our past, or perhaps even a former client who struggled with the same issues? Do we begin coaching as though we expect this client to struggle the same way our other client did? Are we bringing our own unfinished emotional business into the coaching relationship?

 

Client Projections

When we are on the receiving end of our client’s projections, how do we handle it? A client who treats us as the high and mighty expert may cause us to overcompensate by being so informal and friendly that we now come across as a “buddy” or “pal” instead of a professional coach. The client who projects a parental role onto us may bring out our overly professional, even stiff and impersonal side. Such a client may become unexplainably resistant to even the best form of coaching accountability. The coach who is working with a client from a company who incentivizes employees to seek coaching to receive by promising a discount on health insurance, etc., may find their client unusually hostile. Such a client may be projecting their own issues around authority onto the innocent coach. The list goes on.

 

Minimizing Projection

The central problem with our own projection is that it is operating outside of our awareness. We make our assumptions without even realizing them. We slip into feeling that we do know best for our client, and on and on. Let’s look at ways to minimize the occurrence of our projection.

• Coach with a sense of self-monitoring. Check in with your own affective and bodily sensations and determine what they are telling us.
• Set clear boundaries and expectations for the coaching relationship as you create the coaching alliance.
• Draw a clear distinction between coaching and therapy. This includes operating from a coaching mindset, not an analytical, diagnostic mindset in our relationship with our client.
• Be vigilant for parental feelings that arise where you believe that you know what is best for your client
• Reflect upon the client who brings out unusual feelings in you that are hard to explain or understand. Listen to recordings and examine your responses to your client.
• When client reactions to coaching interactions seems extreme, consider what else might be going on that has nothing to do with the here-and-now coaching experience. Inquire gently “Does this remind you of any other experiences you’ve had?” “What’s this coaching like for you? Is it similar to anything else you’ve done?”
• Seek out mentoring/supervision to explore puzzling client relationships that “don’t feel right”.
• Do your own work! Your own personal journey of personal growth and healing may need some attention if it is leaking into your coaching work. Don’t let your own “unfinished business”, get in the way!

 

Dr. Michael Arloski

Learn more about projection in coaching and how to stay out of your client’s way at the Real Balance Global Wellness YouTube Channel —
Getting Yourself Out of the Way – Mastery for the Wellness Coach with Dr. Michael Arloski https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCp-aNFdbWwnX38fdLgr52eg?view_as=subscriber

The Great Utility of Coaching In The Emotional Realm

According to Plato: Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.

Coaches often cautiously retreat from the affective level with their clients for fear of crossing the line into therapy. Other coaches with a professional mental health background are comfortable going in this direction, but don’t often know how to shift from a therapeutic approach to a coach approach. Unfortunately, we also find coaches who have no professional mental health qualifications who are all too eager to dive deeply into the world of emotions. In two of my previous blog posts I address the critical distinctions between coaching and counseling/psychotherapy, coaching scope of practice, and how to facilitate referrals when needed. (Process Coaching: Yes, Coaches “Do Emotions” http://wp.me/pUi2y-dL) (Coaching a Client Through To A Mental Health Referral Using The Stages of Change http://wp.me/pUi2y-lp)

There is naturally much valuable work written about emotions, from Emotional Intelligence, to Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, and more. In this post let’s focus on how a coach, especially a health and wellness coach, can enhance the coaching process by working effectively with affect.

What the authors of Co-Active Coaching (2012) (Whitworth, et.al) call “process coaching” has been co-opted by a wide variety of writers and practitioners, each with their own disparate definitions. The definition that Whitworth, et.al, provide is worth repeating here: “Process coaching focuses on the internal experience, on what is happening in the moment. The goal of process coaching is to enhance the ability of clients to be aware of the moment and to name it… Sometimes the most important change happens at the internal level and may even be necessary before external change can take place.” Their message here for coaches is that unless we address the affective component, we often struggle to see real progress. When coach and client dance around feelings, the exploration can stay superficial and goal setting, strategies for change, etc., often lack a sufficient motivational driver. An internal barrier to change may still remain. So, how do we work with emotions and stay within our scope of practice as a coach?

A client may speak of any manner of unresolved conflicts, a history of trauma, even abuse that they have experienced. It may be about family of origin issues, or any sort of unfinished emotional business. This does not immediately indicate the need for a referral. The reality is that many, if not most, people carry around their unfinished business such as this and function quite well. The challenge for the coach is not to take the bait of problem solving and coach seeking to resolve these old issues.

Resolution Vs. Relevance

The key here is to seek how the emotions of the client are relevant to the progress they are attempting to achieve in coaching. Perhaps a coach and client create action steps in their wellness plan composed of various self-care activities, yet the client repeatedly holds himself or herself back from engaging in these. As this is discussed in coaching, an internal barrier is identified that traces back to their family of origin. Perhaps a critical parent harshly enforced that all work must be done before one does anything for one’s self. Doing process coaching around this, the savvy coach seeks not the resolution of all of the feelings and unfinished business with that parent (be they dead or alive). Instead, they coach to help their client gain insight regarding how these past learning’s are holding them back today. If the client is able to gain such insight and translate it into action (moving ahead with self-care) then the process coaching is achieving its goal. If the client continues to only process feelings and does not gain insight or does not succeed in shifting their behavior, then, we have probably identified an issue that is significant enough to warrant the encouragement of referral to a counselor or therapist.

Putting It Into Words

Client: You know, I love this idea of taking time for myself to do just what I enjoy, but every time I do I just feel really guilty.
1) Coach: Tell me more about how this guilt shows up.
Client: Well, like last week when I said I would connect with one of my good friends on the weekend and go do something fun. The whole time we were hanging out together I kept thinking about all of the things on my to-do list at home, and how I probably should be doing things for my family instead.
2) Coach: That must have really taken some of the pleasure out of being with your friend and trying to have fun. You sound really disappointed.
Client: Yeah. I am. We were just trying to relax and enjoy the day and I was only about half into it.
3)Coach: Has that happened before, when you’ve been unable to fully enjoy the moment like that?
Client: Definitely! It seems to happen all the time. I keep thinking of what I didn’t get done around the house, and about what is still hanging incomplete at work. It’s almost like I can hear my parents, years ago, always pushing me hard to get all of my work done before I could do anything I wanted to do. They were really strict and on top of that they would forbid me to do most of the things I wanted to do anyway.
4) Coach: It must be extremely frustrating having thoughts like that get in the way today.
Client: Frustrating indeed. When I think about them, and the hard time they gave my siblings and me I really can get upset.
5) Coach: Your tough upbringing was very real. It sounds painful to remember those experiences. Tell me more about how it gets in the way of you giving yourself permission to practice more self-care.
Client: I guess it keeps me from either planning something good for myself, like how I cancelled getting a massage again last week. Or, when I’m finally out there doing something I want to do to relax and unwind, I distract myself thinking of what I ‘should’ be doing.
6) Coach: Are you hearing how you are allowing all of that history to get in your way today, in the present?
Client: Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m doing.
7) Coach: How can I support you in making your own decisions about what’s good for you?

Looking At The Coaching

In this example our coach begins (1) by requesting clarification in a very neutral way. This allows the client to go further without having to go in the direction a question would have taken them. The coach then (2) responds empathically and reflects feeling. This gives the client permission to go further into the affective level. Attempting to help the client identify a pattern (3) the coach inquires about past experience with the same thing. The coach again (4) expresses empathy and reflects feeling. The coach is conveying to the client that they can handle talking about feelings. This enhances the coaching alliance and builds trust. The coach is also not jumping into problem solving and thereby dampening down the affect. Next (5) the coach validates the client’s reality and empathizes. The coach then requests clarification but does so in a directive way that nudges the client back to relevance to their Wellness Plan. The coach follows the client’s examples (6) by not asking for details, but instead by sharing an observation in a gentle confrontation with the client. Finally (7) the coach empowers the client to own their decision making power and enquires how they can provide support. More coaching would then follow.

Reflection of Feeling

Witnessing coaching being practiced in our Real Balance trainings (https://www.realbalance.com) and listening to hundreds of recordings of our students coaching, I can conclude that there is no doubt what coaching skill shows up the least: Reflection of Feeling. Coaching students, often blindly focus on problem solving and seem to continually make two huge blunders: 1) they forget to express empathic understanding, and 2) they seldom reflect feeling. By not doing these two things they miss tremendous opportunities to enhance the coaching process. When we do express empathy and reflect feeling we open the coaching conversation to the emotional realm. This provides a number of important advantages:

Acknowledging the Affective:

1) Builds trust and builds the coaching alliance. The client knows that they have a true and courageous ally who is not afraid to deal with what the client is feeling. The client doesn’t have to hide, they can be true to themselves. When the feelings of the client are honored and met with unconditional positive regard, instead of judgment, the coaching alliance deepens.
2) Validates what is figural for the client. In the Gestalt sense of awareness, the emotional component, when strong, is often figural (in front, most aware, occupying more of one’s consciousness). If this is avoided, coach and client struggle to focus on the “background”. This is acknowledging what is “real” for the client.
3) Taps into energy! Emotion is often described as energy in motion = E-motion. When the client makes more contact with their emotion, more energy is accessed and can be utilized in the coaching process.
4) Connects with motivation! We move on what we are passionate about. We also can address the fear that often results in lack of movement. Clients are not going to progress towards action when they are frozen with fear. Affect provides the fuel that allows values and priorities to be expressed.
5) Builds self-efficacy. One of Bandura’s four ways to build self-efficacy is termed Physiological States. Emotions, moods, physical reactions and stress levels influence our levels of confidence and our own personal evaluations of our abilities. Anxiety can foster self-doubt thereby lowering self-efficacy. As we help our clients to safely contact feelings and explore their life-relevance, the client learns that they have more control over emotions, and how to interpret and evaluate their emotional states. All of this can have a positive effect on their self-efficacy. As we know, self-efficacy, the degree to which one believes that they can affect change in their life, is pivotal to success in lifestyle improvement.

Reviewing these advantages we can see that when coach and client stick to just goal setting, reporting and accountability, and steer away from the emotional element, the result is a process that diminishes the coaching alliance, focuses on what is less important, lacks energy and motivation and fails to maximally build self-efficacy.

Find out more about coaching with emotions in these recources:

Kimsey-House, H., Kimsey-House, K., Sandahl, P., Whitworth, L. (2011) Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives. 3rd Ed. Nicholas Brealey America.

Williams, P. & Menendez, D. (2015) Becoming a Professional Life Coach: Lessons from the Institute for Life Coach Training, 2nd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. pp. 202-213.

China Embraces Real Balance Wellness Coaching

Real Balance Wellness & Health Coach Certification Class in Shanghai – 2017

Faced with the same lifestyle-based health crisis many other countries are experiencing, China has been searching for a way to help people truly succeed at lasting lifestyle change. Over half of the men in China smoke. The diabetes rate is now higher than the United States, with heart disease, COPD and other “lifestyle diseases” on the rise. Health information campaigns and medical admonition, as elsewhere, has only gone so far. Last month when Real Balance Global Wellness Services, Inc. (https://www.realbalance.com) teamed up with Chestnut Global Partners China EAP (http://chestnutglobalpartners.org) to bring live wellness and health coach certification training to China it was enthusiastically embraced.

The concept of wellness is new to China, and wellness & health coaching is even newer. Though there is a long tradition of Traditional Chinese Medicine that blends with Allopathic Conventional Medicine, these are still remedial treatments and do not address how to help someone improve lifestyle behavior. Smoking cessation programs are vigorous but face a huge challenge in this population. Wellness coaching provides an innovative way to make behavioral change possible for those who need it.

What impressed me most about my entire trip to China were the students in our live training in Shanghai. The class was composed partly of Chestnut Global Partners EAP employees. These were mostly physicians and department directors. The rest of the class was a mix of M.D.’s, dieticians, counselors, Human Resources professionals and even a few independent life coaches. Throughout our grueling six-day training their level of engagement was extraordinary. While all students are faced with the “mindset shift” challenge (going from a prescriptive, consultative way of interacting, to a coach approach), this group did so with less resistance than we anticipated. They really got the concept that when it comes to helping people change behavior, it is very different from treatment or education. Fortunately, the training I delivered was coordinated with my translator and co-trainer, Dr. Li Peizhong, psychologist and V.P. of Chestnut Global China. He performed live translation as I spoke, and added greatly to the interaction and processing.

All of our trainings are highly interactive, and when students shared information and stories of work they had done with patients and clients, the level of humor employed was amazing! Much was “lost in translation” for me, but they were continually breaking out into boisterous laughter. Also, the Chinese students were more natural in their continual use of empathy in their coaching practice. While they tended, like students everywhere (we’ve found), to jump right into problem solving first, they used empathy and spoke of the importance of it, more than any other group I have trained.

Chinese culture is well known for valuing the group. As our training went on, group cohesion increased rapidly. Students supported one another in their learning through a real sense of caring for one another. When one student volunteered to be our client for a round of “fishbowl coaching” practice (where a student works on a real life challenge and is coached by a number of students) she left the exercise still perplexed about a way forward. Students formed a circle around our volunteer student and spent their entire break time collectively discussing with her about how to address her challenge.

The other evidence of this collective spirit was in the almost instant formation of a class group on the app WeChat. Before the training was even finished, and then vigorously once it was complete, they were on WeChat (http://www.wechat.com/en/) connecting, lining up their Buddy Coaching, and then sharing photos and stories of how they were following through on their own lifestyle improvement action steps.

Practicing Tai Chi On The Great Wall

The students were unbelievably appreciative, kind and treated me like royalty. I had integrated some of my Tai Chi and Xi Gung practice into our energy breaks, much to the delight of the students. At the conclusion of the training, at our celebratory class dinner they gifted me with a beautiful white Tai Chi practice suit to show their appreciation.

On To Beijing!

After our training in Shanghai, we flew to the country’s capital, Beijing, for a special Book Release Event. At Peking University (yes, it is spelled differently), Chestnut Global and my publisher, The China Translation & Publishing House, hosted a large gathering of executives from several multi-national corporations, representatives of the Chinese government’s smoking cessation program, and others, to witness the release of my book, Wellness Coaching For Lasting Lifestyle Change, 2nd Ed., (https://wholeperson.com/store/wellness-coaching-for-lasting-lifestyle-change.shtml)  in its Mandarin translation. Speakers from Chestnut Global, Peking University, and the government’s smoking cessation program joined me in delivering talks to the very receptive audience. This was followed by one astonishing Chinese banquet.

A World of Wellness

I have been fortunate to take our training to a number of countries around the world and each experience has been special. The beautiful thing is that whether it is a training session in Indianapolis, Sao Paulo, Dublin, Shanghai, or Fort Collins, our students know that this training is going to make their work so much more effective. They know it is going to make their work so much easier, and more rewarding. They know it is going to help them enhance the lives of others.

I’ve stood at the front of the room around the globe, but it is the people who stand behind me that really make it all possible. It’s the allies we’ve formed in other countries and it’s the people right here at home. I’m able to write books and deliver keynotes and trainings because others are operating the office, servicing our students, teaching classes and representing Real Balance to the world as well. I come back from China with a heart full of hope for the people of our planet and with gratitude for those who help me step out there and make it a better place.

FAVE ! First Acknowledge, Validate and Empathize.

What really reaches us is empathy.
What really reaches us is empathy.

Effective coach training teaches about   the power of relationship, of person-to-person connection, not just because it’s warm and “nice”, but because all the evidence from coaching and psychotherapy says it works! We each need to feel truly heard by others that we are attempting to be in relationship with. When we share our lives, our experiences and our feelings we truly want to have acceptance, acknowledgement, and validation.

If I share that I have been in pain since an injury and it is breaking my heart that I can’t get out and enjoy the physically active things I love to do, I don’t want someone to consult with me about a solution (“Let’s explore what you can do to exercise now.”). I want someone to say “Wow! That must be so terribly difficult for you to be unable to exercise.” I want them to “get it” that I’m not only in pain, but I’m frustrated, angry, stuck, depressed, and feeling loss. I want to HEAR that they “get it”.

Once I feel like my experience is understood at that heart level, that my feelings have been affirmed, and it’s been conveyed that it’s okay for me to feel the way I feel, THEN I’ll be happy to launch into some great strategic thinking about seeking solutions.

Empathy RogersWhen coaches convey what I love to call The Facilitative Conditions of Coaching (see my previous post: http://wp.me/pUi2y-6i) clients feel the validation, acceptance, acknowledgement that we’re talking about. Coaches have to find the words to convey empathy, acknowledgement, unconditional positive regard, warmth and genuiness. But, they have to remember to do that FIRST, before they jump to solution seeking.

Having trained over 4,000 wellness coaches worldwide, I’m continually amazed by two things: 1) we train some of the warmest, kindest, most caring people on the planet, and 2) when learning the new skill of coaching these same wonderful people so often totally forget to express warmth, kindness and caring. They struggle on the hot seat of
demonstrating/practicing coaching, and in their anxiety of new learning, instead plow right into seeking to “fix” the problem presented. No statements of empathy. No expression of understanding what the client is feeling. Instead one question after another seeking to find a solution (So what types of exercise have you already tried since your injury?). And by the way, we have observed no difference here by gender, probably 85% of the coaches we have trained have been female.

Remember to be a coach, not a consultant. Consultation is all about finding solutions. Consultants name their businesses things like “Totally Amazing Solutions, Inc.”. Coaches help people discover/create their OWN solutions, they don’t just provide them for their clients…that’s consulting. The mindset shift from treatment provider, consultant (medical or otherwise), or educator to that of coach takes repetitive practice. It’s so easy to slip back into the “What wrong and how can we fix it?” thinking, instead of staying in the coach’s “What’s possible?” thinking.

Acronyms can help us remember processes. Let’s try this one: FAVE.

FAVE: First acknowledge, validate and empathize.

As our client’s story unfolds tune into it with the mind of compassion, the mind of understanding and the mind of connection. Some of what works is relaxing into the coaching process and realizing that just by being true to our naturally warm and empathic way of being we are providing that “safe container”. We “hold sacred ground” for our clients to do the exploration they need to do. When solution finding is embarked upon without adequate exploration, the path taken is often unproductive at best and counterproductive at worst.

So, FAVE! First of all ACKNOWLEDGE your client’s experience. Paraphrase, restate and reiterate what they have said. Remember to reflect their feelings. Help them feel that it has been recognized that they have been experiencing the emotions they have been living. Acknowledge the courage it takes to share. Acknowledge the self-caring it takes to seek help and assistance. Acknowledge the depth of your client’s challenges, their strengths, etc. So you haven’t been able to run or bike ride for three months now. How tough it must be to go from being so athletic to hardly exercising at all! Tell me more about what that has been like for you.

As you do this you VALIDATE their experience and their emotions.  Your unconditional positive regard (and therefore lack of judgment) makes it possible for the client to feel that it is okay for them to feel the way they feel. You are affirming that what they have told you has been their reality. You help the client feel that their story is validated, and as you coach further, with that accepting and yet at times challenging coaching presence, you help them learn that they are NOT their story. As you acknowledge, affirm and validate you help them feel well heard. You help them explore their experience and EXPRESS their feelings about it so they can let go of it, put it in the rear-view mirror, and realize they are not trapped by their story.

Our most powerful vehicles to convey this acceptance and affirmation, this sense of support is the EXPRESSION of empathic understanding. That kind look in the eyes, your thoughts of compassion are very sweet, but they are not enough. We have to put it into words (think telephonic coaching!) and COVEY our empathy. So when you have free time you just have to sit there and wish you were able to move like you used to. How challenging! You must miss being active very much. It sounds like you’ve tried to deal with as best you can, but it’s got to be a real loss for you.

It takes courage on the part of the coach to practice FAVE. You’ve got to be okay with emotion, not afraid of it. Empathy is not trying to cheer the person up, quickly reassuring them that everything will be all right, in essence rescuing them. This conveys a message like “Don’t feel they way you’re feeling. Feel the way I’m more comfortable with you feeling. Cheer up!” FAVE is getting down in the mud, or up riding high in the sky WITH our clients…meeting them where they are at, not where we want them to be. I want MY reality acknowledged, not YOUR fantasy!

Creating "Sacred Space"
Creating “Sacred Space”

The thing to remember is that when we allow our clients to feel the way they feel they usually do so and move through it more fluidly. When they are not able to, even after our repeated attempts at providing our best facilitative conditions, it’s probably time to consider referral to a mental health professional (see my previous post http://wp.me/pUi2y-bA.).

Perhaps some of our “rush to solution” is connected to our fear of dealing more directly with feelings. I’m not going to second guess a coach’s intentions and motivations here. I would just love to see coaches serving their clients in the most effective way possible, and that begins with FAVE.

What are some of your thoughts on the idea of making acknowledgement of our client’s experience a priority?  Please leave your comments.

Universal Introspection: From Tucson to Trust and Compassion

A Delicate Balance

The January 8, 2011 tragedy in Tucson, Arizona shocked the world and stimulated a discussion about how we do, in fact, discuss things. It is the “how” more than the “what” that we have realized bears critical examination. Country-wide introspection has caused us to ask: how did we get to this point of intolerance of disparate views, to an age of political attack ads, an erosion of civility and abandonment of empathic understanding of one another? Where has the empathy and compassion gone that our country used to be famous for? How can we be more compassionate with those trying to improve their own health while facing huge challenges, and how, in such a climate, can we be more self-compassionate of our own efforts at lifestyle improvement?

This universal introspection is serving us well and is initiating serious examination of both our political process and, hopefully, of our own individual and collective (social) consciousness about how we relate to our fellow travelers on this planet. I hope it’s a time when we “catch” ourselves if we have let our compassion for self and others erode. We need to ask ourselves if we have pulled back in fear and judgment away from our fellow human beings and labeled them with categorical names that distance “them” from “us”. Have we allowed others to alienate us from our fellow woman and man?

Heeding The Call For A More Empathic Culture

In a recent article written for The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeremy-rifkin/post_1570_b_808549.html?view=print) Jeremy Rifkin, author of  The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, asks if we will heed the call for a more empathic culture.

“The President’s call for a more empathic culture and civil society raises the troubling question of “What has gone so terribly wrong with America?” Why are we becoming more aggressive, violent, self-interested and intolerant as a society? The problem goes deeper than just blaming the escalating rhetoric of political pundits and talk show hosts. They are playing off a deeper sensibility that has become engrained in the thinking of many Americans.”

Rifkin looks for answers in our history and shows how we have, in fact, been led astray by philosophers, clerics, and writers seeking to advance their own dark vision of human nature. He backs this up by pointing to how we have come to view our own evolution through a new and more accurate lens.

“New discoveries in human evolutionary development are challenging our long held shibboleths about human nature. We are learning that human beings are biologically predisposed not for aggression, violence, self-interest and pleasure seeking utilitarian behavior but, rather, for intimacy and sociability, and that empathy is the emotional and cognitive means by which we express these drives.”

All politics aside, this article is a must-read for all in human helping professions because of the deep presentation of just what real empathy is.

Social scientists and wellness and health promotion experts have taught us about the power of norms. We human beings tend to behave and to hold beliefs similar to those with whom we associate the most whether at home or at work. We might ask ourselves if the groups we allow to influence us have been operating from a place of fear, entitlement, privilege, or downright prejudice and see themselves as unquestionably right.

Our nation, and all the nations of this planet, face enormous problems. Special interests will always exert effort to meet their own needs. Opinion and disagreement are nothing new and nothing wrong. In the midst of all of this we need to look at the difference between problem solving and debate. A quick effort at finding definitions and word origins for “debate” yields nothing referencing “problem solving” or seeking solutions. Our sense of tackling the problems that perplex us has degenerated into “A formal contest of argumentation in which two opposing teams defend and attack a given proposition.” We all have to wake up and realize that this is not a game! We are operating on a model that does not fit our purpose. If our purpose is solution finding, creating answers that will solve our problems, then we have to give up the game and create a true problem-solving model. That model, no matter what it is composed of in terms of process, needs to be founded on empathy and compassion.

The world of psychology in the last forty to fifty years has debunked the Freudian notions rooted in Victorian Society’s view of humankind as essentially evil, driven by only sex and aggression and in need of continual vigilant guard. What we have seen in the humanistic psychology movement and the more recent positive psychology movement is a more worthy vision of human beings. Most people in the human helping professions, who work with human behavior on the scientific and practical level every day, see us as intrinsically motivated to cooperate, to care for one another, and when our needs are basically met in a healthy way, to be compassionate and even heroic in our efforts to support each other’s existence.

As we grieve the loss of life in Tucson, let us not just grieve a loss of civility and compassion, let us first look at ourselves, then at each other, and rebuild an empathic culture. Let us incorporate a conscious awareness that seeks opportunity to turn fear, judgment and intolerance into trust and compassion.