How do you know what you know?
Presumably, you’ve been in the world quite a few years:
how did you learn everything that you now know?
How do you learn now?
When I think about how I learn now, I’m aware of how much I pick up from reading, much of it on the internet; through newspapers too – and books, lots from books…. I pick up from listening – to radio, TV, to people in my life. It’s information learning. If I trust it, I take it on board and remember it. I think I’m discerning about it.
Rumi, born 800 years before the internet, has something to say about intelligence acquired from books and from what the teacher says:
There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.
With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.
All good, especially if you have your eyes on success. But there’s another kind of learning that doesn’t need to be agreed with or trusted, because we experience it. Take learning to walk. Balance is something you experience. It isn’t a matter of trusting information or not. When you’re out of balance, you fall down. No one tells you what to do or what to learn in infancy in order to be able to walk. The doing is the learning. You get to know what balance feels like, and you walk. What a miracle it is to learn to walk! How many muscles do you control at the same time when you succeed in walking – 200 or so? All at the same time! Imagine working your way through a written manual, “How to Walk”! People who have to relearn in adulthood have to do the equivalent of just that. And they are much more likely to fall down and mistrust it: “Walking’s not for me any more. I don’t trust it’s possible. Might as well give up now.”
These two ways of learning carry on through life. We tend more and more to use information learning as we grow up. Most people like learning to be neat and practical:
10 ways to become a better public speaker
5 tips to guarantee success in business
10 steps to the perfect golf swing
6 vital lessons to teach your kids
Every time I work with coaches, presenters or leaders the questions are the same, “Tell me what to do in order to …” “Yes, but what should I do?” “Give me the five steps!”
Yet, in these areas, as in many others, the most important intelligence is something you already have. As Rumi describes it:
There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the center of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through conduits of plumbing-learning.
This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.
Inside and Outside
You pick up knowledge from the outside and take it in. But this other learning arises within. What would we call this “freshness in the center of the chest” nowadays? Intuition? Instinct? It’s not book learning. I would call it feeling. It’s feeling that tells you that you are walking in balance. It’s feeling that alerts you to something amiss or an instinct to follow. Empathy is a feeling.
You can have feelings about someone.
You can have feelings for someone.
You can have feelings with someone.
You can have feelings as someone.
Ah, (to divert for a moment) these prepositions! Europeans who learn English think at first that it’s an easy language – no different genders for everything, easy plurals, easy declensions of verbs. But then they meet prepositions. They are suddenly faced with a jumble of completely different meanings all resting on the addition of a preposition to a simple verb. Consider the verb “take” followed by different prepositions:
Take off: I took off my jeans – removed
He took off Benny Hill – imitated
Take to: I really took to tennis – warmed to, enjoyed
Take out: Take me out to dinner – invite me to
He took out the terrorist – killed him
Take on: The company took him on – employed him
Don’t take on so – make such a fuss
I’ll take you on – compete with you
Take in: I couldn’t take it in – understand it
I took him in and let him stay – gave accommodation to
I was taken in by his charm – deceived.
Take over: He took over the world – conquered
Take after: She takes after her mother – resembles
Take back: I take back what I said – revoke
Take up: I’m going to take up French – start to learn
Take off: The plane took off – launched
Take down: Take down what I say – record
They took him down – destroyed him
Stop!! Okay, I’m getting carried away.
Back to feeling. Prepositions are at work here too.
I can feel for you, which means that I have warm feelings when I think about you. If you are distressed,
I can have feelings about your distress, which probably means that I have some intellectual understanding of what you are going through.
I can feel sympathy, which is to feel with: i.e. I feel pity with your suffering; as we read of disasters in the newspaper, our feeling is often one of sympathy.
And finally, I can feel empathy, which is to be inside your feeling, to feel what you are feeling, to feel the same distress that you feel.
Now, to be inside someone’s feeling is something remarkable. It isn’t book learning; it’s not acquisition of knowledge, though knowledge can help. Empathy doesn’t have words, though I may decide to speak. It isn’t the same as pity, though pity may be present. It’s experiencing the same quality that you are feeling: experiencing your actual pain; experiencing your joy. It’s my heart beating with your beat; being in tune with your being; coming together with you in the place where you are now.
I can book-learn your distress. I can learn your body language, how you sound and the light in your eye when you are in a particular state, just as I can learn to speak in public by adopting particular body language, a particular tone of voice and a particular kind of eye contact. And that works, sort of.
But true empathy shortcuts all that. I just step inside you and feel what you feel and, feeling what you feel, I understand you. It’s only possible if I am thin-skinned, if I haven’t built up that armour of self-protection that most people wear. Thin skinned means vulnerable: I have to be vulnerable.
People who put intellect above feeling will say that it’s hardly helpful to feel distress at someone’s distress, as all you do is to fall into the emotional same hole as the other person. But the greatest resource of the coach, counsellor, doctor, teacher, leader or carer is to feel true empathy – to be entirely present with the other person – but without drowning in their distress: to feel their pain, and to know as you breathe and stay open that you are more than that pain and can be beside the other person holding them safe even as you feel their pain. To do that represents both an instant resource and requires a lifetime of learning.
It’s 2020, the world looks bad; now more than ever, empathy is our only possible answer. So yes, by all means, set your resolutions this year to learn the 5 important steps, maintain the 10 best ways, follow the 3 vital answers … But know too, as you know anything truly important, that you already have within you the ability to walk beside another and feel the reality of them, and that this, available to all of us now, is by far our most powerful asset going forward into 2020.
Happy New Year 🙂
This talk I gave a few months ago touches on similar themes. You can find it on TED.com. Please share it if you enjoy it.
The Art of Communication:
How to Be Authentic, Lead Others and Create Strong Connections
Have you dipped into my latest book? Maybe it would make a New Year present to yourself? Here’s a snippet from the final chapter on ways to be with another person.
And so it happens that one day you are talking with someone, and you become aware that you both are, in a place of betweenness. There’s no sense of doing; no one is leading; and you feel the powerful frisson of connection within that space. It’s like the relationship between a musician and her instrument. A musician never masters his instrument but joins with it. The music that results is neither musician nor instrument yet comes about because of both.
The field of awareness between you is the space where magic happens, where there is no you, no me, just the space we create together.
“The characters for “human being” in Japanese mean “person” and “between”. Thus, you as a human being exist only through your relations with others.”
My other books:
The Art of Conversation
Conversational skill isn’t really about being articulate and having a fund of things to talk about – though that’s what most books on the subject would suggest. It’s more about being at ease with who you are and knowing how to connect with others. Only then do you have authentic and satisfying conversations.
Butterflies and Sweaty Palms
This is a book about performance anxiety – it offers 25 different strategies to perform with confidence. But it’s not just about presenting and performing – you’ll find its ideas useful for eliminating anxiety throughout your life.
Voice and Speaking Skills for Dummies
The perfect resource to discover the power of your voice, understand how it works and use it like a professional, whether in meetings, addressing an audience, or standing in front of a classroom.
Voice of Influence
“The body language of sound”. Like body language, your voice gives you away. Find your authentic voice, speak powerfully and influentially, and reach people on a deeper level.
Did you see my article on the Art of Good Communication
in Intercontinental Finance and Law magazine?
Follow the link; then it’s on pages 12-13.
Don’t Play the Blame Game
A date for your diaries – Sunday 29th March in London: A Spirit of Coaching event, open to all coaches and those interested in coaching. Further details shortly.
Simple short ecourses
Sign up for a free E-course to enjoy at home (I never share your email with anyone). You’re welcome to share these with friends. Okay, knowledge learning, but useful for all that!