There is much suffering that occurs in the world of relationships. Each one of us knowingly and unknowingly do things that cause varying degrees of suffering in others. The reality is that most of us become uncomfortable when a parent, child, partner, or friend tells us about the hurt, pain or suffering we have caused them. The natural response for most of us is to become angry, defensive and bitter in these situations. We become angry because we assume that the other person is only expressing their pain because they want us to suffer as well.
When we become angry and bitter upon hearing a loved one tell us of the pain and suffering we have caused them, it inhibits our capacity to deeply listen to the other person. However, there is an antidote for this barrier to listening: compassion.
One of my favorite authors, Ticht Naht Hanh, wrote that “If you keep compassion alive in you while listening, then anger and irritation cannot arise. Otherwise the things he says, the things she says will touch off your irritation, anger and suffering. Compassion alone can protect you from becoming irritated, angry, or full of despair.” (1)
But what exactly is compassion? Dictionary.com identifies compassion as “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”
How do we feel sympathy for the sorrow that others have experienced? How do we show that we don’t want the other person to suffer anymore? How do we have compassion? How do we do this when others are telling us that our actions are the source of their pain?
Thich Naht Hanh suggests that compassion is born from understanding (1). When we approach listening with love and understanding we increase our capacity to listen to the suffering, we may have caused, without getting defensive. Seeking to understand demonstrates and increases our compassion.
To be able to compassionately understand the other person we need to keep the perspective that we are not the enemy and the other person is not the enemy. Ticht Naht Hanh wrote that “Our enemy is not the other person. Our enemy is the violence, ignorance, and injustice in us and the other person. When we are armed with compassion and understanding, we fight not against other people, but against the tendency to invade, to dominate, and to exploit.” (1)
Seeking to understand does not mean that we are passively submitting to the other persons point of view. It doesn’t mean that we must agree with the other person. However, it does show the other person that the way they think and feel is important to us. It demonstrates to the other person that we care about them. In turn, listening compassionately invites the other person to seek to understand us. When both people feel understood, conflict is decreased and more amicable solutions can be achieved.
Seeking understanding is not always easy because many of us are fixated on seeing the other person as the enemy. When we see the other person this way we give ourselves permission to be critical and defensive which are behaviors that degrade and destroy relationships.
Listening with compassion and understanding is not always a natural response. This is especially true when someone tells us of the suffering we have caused them. As a result we may benefit from the help of a trained third party. In couples counseling or family therapy, a licensed therapist can coach you and your loved one on how to listen with compassion and seek understanding. As you learn to listen with compassion and understanding the amount of conflict in your relationship decrease and your relationship will improve.
1. Hanh, Tich Nhat. Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. New York : Riverhead Books , 2001.