I witnessed a recent discussion, prompted by Karen Armstrong’s TED talk. She’s a British author of books on comparative religion. My paraphrase of one of her comments is, “Our need to be right negates our ability to be compassionate.”
I got to thinking about conversations I’ve been in where the other person was absolutely convinced of their rightness on the topic at hand and was determined to convince or even convert me to their point of view.
Such conversations are not fun, for sure. If I’m the recipient, my defenses go up, I create protective barriers as quickly as I can when under assault, and I know I’ll lose no matter what I say. I often opt to remain silent as the other person rattles on, feeling success at the escalation of their voice. Of course, if I don’t respond, their entire tirade is pointless. The game requires two people; it’s finished when one refuses to play.
As Armstrong implies, the need to be right overrides reason, logic, silence, understanding, and certainly compassion for the other person.
After one such confrontation with a teenager, I pondered: if my goal/intention in conversation is to understand your point of view, your perspective, and where you’re coming from (rather than throwing up my defenses) there is a possibility that you, in fact, may cause me to change my mind. Not because you’re right, but because I’ve heard and understood what you said. I’ve added your information to my knowledge base and re-evaluated my own position.
If both parties come to the conversation with the goal of understanding, beliefs on either or both sides could possibly change.
It’s also possible that nothing changes in light of such understanding.
You win. I lose.
If you are here to discuss and understand, we both have the opportunity to learn more about the other, even though we may continue to disagree.
That’s when compassion happens.
Here are some words that might help you navigate a difficult situation:
I never thought about it like that before.
Can you clarify what you mean?
Have you always felt that way? When did things change for you?
Really? Tell me more.
Can I ask you a question?
I’d like to share my perspective with you. May I?
We are certainly in need of more compassion in our world, in our work, in our families, and in our organizations. I believe it begins with how we relate to one another. Karen Armstrong is correct: If we have a personal need to be right, compassion won’t happen.
You, and I, can change that in our everyday conversations.
Compassion is worth the time and the effort.
We all win when compassion happens.
Compassion feels like a handshake, that says, “Yes, we’re good. We respect each other, even though we disagree.”