When we say we want to understand someone, but then view them through our own judgmentalism, we’re not being honest with ourselves. Compassion and understanding go hand in hand — when we let them.
A while back a woman I found irritating taught me a powerful lesson in compassion and understanding.
She and I were in an all-day meeting together, participants in a group of twenty. We also shared a lunch table, despite my attempt to avoid her. Her pattern of behavior throughout the day was steadfast: She steered most conversation threads back to herself, repeatedly hijacking conversations.
Once she had command of the conversation, she worked hard to keep it, rarely pausing for a breath and droning on about her projects. She seemed oblivious to the social cues of those around her, missing the eye rolling, the audible sighs, the shuffling of papers and moving forward in seats that typically signal people are ready to move on.
I found myself rather fixated on her because she seemed so desperately in need of attention yet unaware that the attention she’d commandeered was not the type she probably wanted. My thoughts about her were all unkind: She’s selfish. Oblivious. Rude. Needy.
Around 3:00 pm and a few minutes before we adjourned, I found myself watching her and asked myself, yet again, “What is going on for this woman? Why is she stealing attention again and again like that?”
This time, though, my heart was ready with an answer. A gentle voice in my head said, She isn’t grasping for attention. She’s desperate for acknowledgement.
The link between compassion and understanding
What made my heart step in this time, when my critical self had ruled my observations about her all day? I think it was because I kept coming back to the same question: What is going on for her? What is going on for her? What is going on for her?
All day, I’d accepted the easy, judgmental answers. The answers born of selfish irritation over being repeatedly thwarted by her conversational hijacking. The answers born of irritation on behalf of others, too.
But down deep, I must have known those answers were insufficient, because I kept returning to the question: What is going on for her?
To deeply understand someone, we have to step outside the boundaries of our own frame of reference. We have to make ourselves interested in seeing things from their frame of reference.
It’s really hard to do when we don’t like them very much or seethe at their rhetoric. When I’m struggling with this, I find this question helpful for pushing me past judgmental territory:
As we were leaving, I saw her off by herself and walked over. I said, “Thank you for all you’re doing…it’s clear you have put so much energy into your projects for others and so much of your heart into caring about other people.”
It wasn’t easy to say this. A part of me was still irritated about how much air and emotional space she had stolen from our day.
Her response startled me. She put her face in her hands and began to sob. Eventually she said, “Thank you for saying that. It means the world to me that someone finally noticed.” Then she hugged me fiercely and was gone.
What if we could do it sooner?
I stood there a long time, feeling that hug. I wondered how different our day might have been if I’d found it in myself to acknowledge her sooner. I wondered how much irritation we could all have avoided.
She allowed me to re-learn something I know about myself and which the universe reminds me now and again:
Compassion alone isn’t a cure-all, but compassion and understanding are kindred spirits.