As I type this (well, not literally), I’m putting the finishing touches on a promotional video for First Person Plural: EI & Beyond, a new podcast from Key Step Media. While my brain is awash in keyframes, masking layers, and animated warp deformations, I thought I’d take a moment to introduce myself, and my role in bringing you First Person Plural.
My name is Bryant Johnson. I’m a graphic designer, illustrator, and lately, an associate producer on First Person Plural. I’ve been working with Key Step Media (né More Than Sound) for seven years, designing the visual look for books, videos, pamphlets, and online trainings.
This spring, as I hunkered down in the pandemic bunker with my partner, my cats, and more streaming video than one could reasonably expect to consume in a lifetime (actually, I should have written “more books”—pretend I typed that instead), Hanuman reached out to me with the idea of creating a podcast on emotional intelligence with his father Daniel Goleman. He wanted to do a more freeform exploration of the subject, emphasizing lived human experiences. And, he asked if I’d be interested in working on it.
Of course I said yes.
Audio isn’t exactly my medium—I’ve spent most of my life working in visual media: first in print, then video and board games, and later graphic design. But the subject is one I hold dearly.
It’s a vocabulary to describe the dynamics we’ve observed and experienced for our entire lives, but didn’t know how to express. And when everything feels like it’s on fire, it’s a bucket of cool water within grabbing distance.
In the weeks since I first wrote this, much has changed in the world. We will have the opportunity to work towards a future without hate; without fear; without a cynical and mortally willful ignorance of reality.
What excites me is the chance to combine my experience in visual storytelling with a new [to me] medium: to craft new ways to make the material accessible, educational, and fun. To build an equitable future, we need more compassion. I hope that First Person Plural will make that abundantly clear, and give listeners a chance to build the skills of emotional intelligence—the vernacular of compassion—in themselves.
We have some exciting episodes in production, and I can’t wait to have you all join us in this endeavor!
The number of programs and certifications and courses on mindfulness, compassion, and Emotional Intelligence seem to grow each year. In a time in which the pressure to chase externally-induced goals is heightened, people are increasingly desperate to rediscover meaning and purpose in their lives. Whether through an app or at a retreat, people often feel encouraged and energized to incorporate greater awareness, balance, and empathy into their lives.
Yet after the buzz of time spent amongst like-minded, well-intentioned, deeply-passionate peers wears off, how many actually practice regularly?
Not many of us, at least not always. In one famous study, psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson told seminary students to prepare to deliver a talk on the meaning of a calling in the ministry. Half the group were told to incorporate the story of the Good Samaritan. As the students were preparing their remarks, the researchers told groups they had to walk to another building to deliver the talk. To half the group, they told them “hurry up, you’re late!;” to other, “take your time.” On the way to the other location an actor slumped in a doorway, coughing and evidently ill. Did the students, particularly those talking about the Good Samaritan, stop to help? Only if they weren’t in a rush. It didn’t matter the subject of their talk. In fact, students would literally step over the evidently ill man in a rush to deliver a talk about the Good Samaritan.
Recently, I was headed to dinner with three friends. Three of us have been immersed in the work of mindfulness, Emotional Intelligence, and compassion. The fourth, my friend’s wife, Gwen, listened patiently and quietly as we talked about our shared passion for creating a better world through self-awareness.
At a red light, as I was admiring a frozen yogurt shop, Gwen blurted out, “Stop the car!” She bolted out of the running car. We couldn’t figure out why until we saw Gwen chatting with an elderly man, who looked like he had been living on the streets for quite some time. We then saw her flag down a delivery truck driver and slowly accompany the sick man to a nearby drugstore. When we finally reached her at the drugstore, Gwen was chatting with the store manager while the truck driver was on the phone with emergency medical services. After the CVS store manager assured Gwen the man would be watched over until the ambulance arrived, we left the store.
In a community where homeless folks were not uncommon, Gwen noticed that this elderly man needed help. “NBD,” she said. No big deal. She simply saw someone in need and did something about it. Calling on an unsuspecting UPS driver and staying by this elderly man as he urinated on the short way to the CVS was just something anyone would do.
Except that not everyone would.
Here we were, teachers of mindfulness chatting away about yogurt shops without noticing the people quietly calling for help. Here Gwen was, noticing and acting.
In AForce for Good, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Daniel Goleman share how each of us can take action like Gwen: 1) check into and manage our own emotional states; 2) practice compassion towards self and others; and 3) help those in need. In other words, it’s not enough for our inner world to feel calm and collected. We can talk and share all the research behind compassion and Emotional Intelligence we want. But if we don’t practice it, it remains words on a page. We need to muscularize compassion.
Easier said than done. The good news is that EI is something we can train and cultivate. Practicing the EI competencies, such as empathy, can help us to recognize those in need, whether obviously visible or deeply submerged. Influence can help us motivate others to live more intentionally. In the immersive EICC program, participants are coached first so that they can experience and build empathy for their clients, as well as gain insights into their own barriers. Above all, the EI competencies give us more tools to bring compassion to life as a force for good.
When we think about the word, “compassion,” images of Mother Teresa and other angelic personas may come to mind–images of figures who have sacrificed something, be it cozy comforts or their lives. Compassion is also sometimes misconstrued as being soft and squishy: people who are nice, affectionate, and sweet all the time.
In reality, compassion does not require us to throw ourselves in front of a truck to save someone’s life, or that we give up our hopes and dreams for another. It doesn’t even require a national catastrophe for us to demonstrate compassion. Rather, we are faced daily with decision points that allow us to practice compassion on an individual level.
Compassion extends beyond feeling sorry for the suffering of others, and while it’s grounded in empathy, it is actually not the same. Empathy is often characterized as feeling “with,” whereas compassion fuels our desire to alleviate suffering. In this way, compassion is empathy combined with the impetus to act. In fact, different parts of our brain get activated by compassion than by empathy. Studies by neuroscientist Tania Singer, at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, show that when we practice empathy, our mirror neurons are in tune with the emotions of the other person: When that person feels pain, the area of our brain for pain also activates. We feel what they feel.
However, this doesn’t always mean we act. In fact, we may become too paralyzed to help when we are struck by empathy–so that we turn away from helping because what we feel is too painful. On the other hand, when we practice compassion, we activate the part of our brain associated with maternal and prosocial behavior; we are concerned and we become motivated to help.
So why are we sometimes moved to help, and other times not? Daniel Goleman references the famous study of Princeton Theological Seminary students to explain. Divinity students were given a sermon topic to practice. Some of them were given the Parable of the Good Samaritan. They were asked to walk to another building to deliver the sermon. During that walk they each encountered a man clearly in need. Some students stopped; others didn’t. The researchers found that the gap didn’t have to do with the sermon topic, but with how much of a hurry they were in. In other words, when they were rushed, they focused on their own needs. While practicing their sermons on being Good Samaritans, they forgot to be Good Samaritans.
This is the paradox, Goleman says, of living in the Anthropocene Age (the geological age in which one species–humans–impact every other species), while our brains were formed during the Pleistocene Age (Ice Age). During the Ice Age we were (and still often are) ruled by our amygdala, our brain’s 9-1-1 alarm system. This part of the brain is oblivious to the impact of our individual, micro-actions on others.
Still, our brains are actually primed for compassion. It is in our nature to want to help. As Dr. Goleman points out, the minute we “attend to the other person, we automatically empathize, we automatically feel with them.” If we remain preoccupied with ourselves, however, we can’t be present enough to even notice that someone else needs help, let alone get past our own personal pain to a point from which we can take action.
The good news is that compassion can be cultivated. The more Self-Aware we are–the more attuned we become to what is happening internally–the better we can engage with the world beyond ourselves. The greater attention we pay to Self-Management–our ability to manage any emotional triggers or reactions–the better we can navigate these emotions in order to help others. The more we recognize our motivation–what drives us–the more we can stay true to our core values. Moreover, those who nurture the Relationship Management competencies of Emotional Intelligence, “have a genuine interest in helping people, especially those who could benefit from their experience.”
Sure, we can picture ourselves as compassionate beings donating money to help a worthy cause 3,000 miles away. Yet when it comes to our own interactions, showing compassion may be a lot harder. Imagine you have witnessed inappropriate or off-color behaviors and comments from your boss and have noticed how that has created a toxic work environment. You recognize that there have been some ethical, if not legal, transgressions, but at the same time, you care about your teammates, your relationship with your boss, and your job security.
What might be a compassionate response?
LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner, who has been at the forefront of promoting compassionate leadership, would suggest that a compassionate response is neither to let such behaviors slide nor to launch an all-out assault on the transgressor. Instead, compassionate responses require us to recognize our own triggers, try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and to have the courage to take a stand.
Perhaps your boss’s inappropriate comments were borne out of insecurity or a complete lack of awareness. While that doesn’t abdicate them of responsibility, putting ourselves in their shoes allows us to witness the situation without being swept away by our own emotional triggers. Doing so may also help us understand how the boss’s actions impact the team. It also allows us to reflect on how our actions may be in service of a greater good. Are we confronting our boss or reporting them out of pettiness, or are we doing so in service of the team and for the boss’s own professional growth and development?
As Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s translator, noted, compassion requires a heck of a lot courage. It isn’t about blind forgiveness, ignorance, or revenge, but about stepping into challenging situations in the service of something greater. In times of great uncertainty, whether at the global or local level, compassion is vital to the well-being of ourselves and others.
Annie came to America while she was pregnant to assure her abusive husband would never be able to reach their children, as being born on American soil would make them citizens. She has been waiting for her green card for seven years, terrified she’ll be deported and separated from her twin boys. They live in a small, two-bedroom apartment and her boys walk five miles to school through a questionable neighborhood to get to school every day while she works three jobs. She leaves before sunrise and gets home well after dark every day, and hasn’t had a day off in three years. Her only solace is their elderly neighbor, Rosa. She loves cooking dinner for the boys and helping them with their homework, as her own children are grown and gone.
Susan is a CEO at a major corporation, and can not only afford childcare, but to have live-in assistance around the house. She can stock her fridge with the best, organic food, and her children are able to take weekly horseback riding and water polo lessons. She lives in a gated community, drives an eco-friendly car, and is able to take time off at her leisure to spend with her children. She went to college for business so she could take over her father’s corporation when he retired, and her children will never have to worry about affording a higher education.
Annie and Susan are similar women who live in the same city. They’re both single working mothers. They love their two children, and work hard to provide them with the best lives possible. They are the same age, like the same music, and are both reading a Milan Kundera novel in their free time. Annie tries to order a coffee (the sole luxury she allows herself to splurge on) and is fumbling around for change at the bottom of her purse. She’s desperate to avoid the public embarrassment that comes with not being able to afford $3.92 for a drink. She apologizes profusely for holding up the line, and manages to leave a crumpled, well-intentioned dollar bill in the tip jar. Susan, behind her in line, taps her foot impatiently and audibly sighs, even though she could easily buy Annie twenty coffees without ever noticing a lack in funds. When it’s finally Susan’s turn, she doesn’t look up from her phone as she orders, and puts an X over the tip space on her credit card receipt.
Why wouldn’t Susan just help Annie, or the hard-working people at the coffee shop?
“Those with few resources and fragile circumstances – like a single mother working two jobs to pay her bills who needs a neighbor to look after her three-year-old – depend on having good relationships with those may one day turn to for help,” Goleman writes.
Wealthier individuals, in contrast, are able to afford help as needed – they don’t rely on the goodwill of the people surrounding them. Keltner suggests that because the rich can afford to tune out other people, they also learn to tune out the needs and suffering of others. In organizations and corporations, he observed that when high- and low- ranking people interact, the higher person avoids eye contact, interrupts, and steam rolls over the conversation.
John Ogbu, the late Nigerian anthropologist from UC Berkeley, noted that Berkely had a de facto caste system, much to Goleman’s surprise. Ethnic minorities and the while middle class were centralized in different, but defined, parts of town. The schools were in between them, separating the caste lines.
“The moment he pointed [the caste lines] out, I saw he was right. But until then that glaring fact had been under the social radar for me – while I was going to those very schools, I hadn’t given it a second thought,” Goleman reflects.
The Dalai Lama has a lot to say on this topic of socioeconomic divides, and added the aspect of faith to the conversation. Followers of certain religions believe social order determines their destiny. If someone is in a lower class, it is because they deserve to be there. If someone is in a higher class, it is because they have a greater destiny.
The wealthy and elite have many reasons for justifying their choice to ignore the needs and suffering of those around them. They displace the blame to the elect, saying change is out of their control or this is the way it’s always been (a feeble guise for their willful ignorance). They may profess “God made them [the worse off] that way,” or believe a divine being decided these people should be below them. The Dalai Lama dismisses this as totally wrong, and nothing but flimsy excuses for callousness. He calls upon people with the privilege and ability to make change to do so.
“You can repeat ”˜equality, equality’ a thousand times,” the Dalai Lama says, asking his followers to act, not just sympathize. “But in reality, other forces take over.” Awareness without action following means nothing.
There is little empathy in the business and political leaders of today, and little thought is given to how it will affect those without access to power when they make decisions. This callousness makes the gap between the classes, between the tops and bottom of organizations, between the castes invisible. This lack of compassion becomes the norm when it isn’t acknowledged, and isn’t just a problem in Berkeley, California. It’s prevalent everywhere, and can only be changed by action.
Like Gandhi once said, “Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use.”
The following is an excerpt of Elad Levinson’s interview with Leadership Development News.It’s no secret that the “softer” personality traits aren’t as valued in organizations. Empathy, self-reflection, and goodwill take the backseat to efficiency, results, and profits. What would you say if I told you that fostering the former skills would actually improve the latter?
Jane Dutton, one of the founders of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship and University of Michigan Roth School of Business, has been studying and researching compassion in the workplace. Her research shows that when you train in mindfulness, it has an immediate impact on the quality of your relationships with your colleagues.
Mindfulness and compassion in the workplace happens in three ways:
You take more responsibility for your own reactions to situations. Instead of being unaware of the impact you have on the people around you – whether it be the team you manage, the project you’re a part of, or even in your personal life outside of work – you begin to step back and observe. Once you are able to view yourself from a semi-objective standpoint, you will find that your actions, positive or negative, may have been really influencing outcomes.
Your listening skills will be immediately impacted. When you are mindful, you tend to be able to put aside your internal reactions to things and really listen to someone and what they are experiencing. As a result, you will improve in being able to include other people and their experiences with the problems you’re trying to solve, which will make not only you, but your team, happier and more efficient.
You just might become warmer. You become more interested in others. There is a sense of concern that the people around you might translate as, “I’m with you, not against you. I’m here for you and interested in your growth and development.”
What people like Jane Dutton and myself are trying to say is that there is room for compassion in the workplace. Work should not be a place you have to completely turn yourself off. Practicing mindfulness and compassion in the workplace can start with you; give it some time and you just might notice your colder co-workers warming up to you, and your workplace become a more enjoyable place.
Preview the free Introductory Module from Thriving on Changehere.