’Just like me, this person knows what suffering feels like.’” It doesn’t matter who “this person” is. You could grab any person off the street, walk into any office or any home, and whoever you find, it would be true. Just like me, this person has had difficulties in his or her life. Just like me, this person has known pain. Just like me, this person wants to be of use in the world, but also knows what it is like to fail. You don’t need to ask them if you are right. If they are human, you are right. All we need to do is choose to see it.”
- Kelly McGonigal
There is this woman I know, and I can’t stand her. Well, there was a time that I couldn’t, and I still struggle to be near her sometimes. She’s a professional who works in a field parallel to mine, and often interacts with the same student athletes that I do. Why do I dislike her? Or, why did I (and honestly still sometimes do)? Well, she applies some methods with the athletes that I disagree with; she refuses to work in collaboration with me, and she says disparaging things about me to my colleagues. I always feel a little deflated when we attend the same function. I find her presence to be an irritation. This feeling detracts from my enjoyment of the event, which I believe is a shame. I know, these feeling are my problem, and I would eliminate them if I could. But, regardless of how I try to see her good sides, or scold myself for my petty thoughts, the uncomfortable disliking remains.
Can you relate to my story? Is there someone in your life who bothers you, but with whom you need to interact? Do you wish you felt differently about him? Do you dislike the person you become in his company? Have you tried to view this person differently? Have you stretched to see the world through his eyes, or explain away his behavior with rationale that should help you care? Me too, because disliking someone is unpleasant for everyone. But you’ll know as well as I do, changing the way you feel about someone is not an easy or simple matter.
Or is it? Psychology researchers have examined “liking” and love extensively, and there are actions you can take to increase your liking for a person, or at least reduce your disliking. Interested? Read on.
The Ben Franklin Effect
In psychology literature there is a phenomenon known as the Ben Franklin effect. Basically, this is the observation that a person is more likely to like another person if he helps that person – even if the helper previously disliked the help-ee. The reason this phenomenon is coined after Ben Franklin is based on this well-known story: in order to win the favor of an adversary, Ben Franklin asked the man if he could borrow a book from his library. When Franklin returned the book to his adversary he included a thank-you note. Following this simple exchange, the relationship between Franklin and his adversary improved greatly.
The Ben Franklin effect has been studied in the lab. Researchers have found that study participants liked an experimenter best when he or she had the opportunity to do the experimenter a favor. This was true even if the favor cost the study participant money that had been promised to him for taking part in the study. The explanation for the Ben Franklin effect is based on the concept of cognitive dissonance, which is a state that most people find highly uncomfortable. Cognitive dissonance is experienced when a person feels one way, but behaves another. The inner conflict a person feels in scenarios such as these is often so uncomfortable that it can cause an individual to either change the way he is behaving, or how he feels. The reason that helping someone helps us like him lies in the brain’s desire to have congruence between thoughts and actions, thus avoiding cognitive dissonance. By taking actions to help someone, our brains choose to believe that our help is due to our liking for that person, and in order to align thoughts and feelings, actually causes us to feel greater fondness for a person. So, if there is someone in your life with whom you must interact, but whom you dislike, trying doing him a favor. You might end up becoming fond of the person after all.
Within Tibetan Buddhism there is a technique called Tonglen, the purpose of which is to cultivate compassion for oneself and others. Tonglen means,“sending and receiving,” and is a strategy used to manage pain within yourself and others. Tonglen can increase compassion and feelings of unity between people and other living beings. There are numerous adaptations on the practice of Tonglen. Below is an explanation of how I use it with my clients.
In summary, the practice of Tonglen involves identifying the suffering present within oneself and others, breathing in that suffering, and then breathing out space for it. Does that sound strange? You mean we breathe IN suffering? Yes, you do, but let’s start at the beginning:
The reason that this exercise requires a person to speak her emotions, is to bring them into awareness. I see this step as comparable to shining a light on emotions in order to understand them better. Interestingly, when we’re open and curious about something it often ceases to feel threatening. Acknowledging and speaking the qualities of our inner experience is like addressing this part of ourselves with interest, and simply doing so can ease the distress that previously accompanied them. The reason we do not label aspects of the inner experience as good or bad, is because they are just human feelings. No one emotion is good or bad. The actions we choose upon feeling some emotions can be labeled as such, but not the feelings themselves. Honestly, the full range of human emotions, from despairingly negative to ecstatically positive, are part of a full human life. To recognize all emotions, regardless of their valence, is to simply recognize that we are having a normal human experience.
4. Breathe in the emotions you are experiencing
By breathing in any and all of the emotions that you notice, you are accepting your authentic human experience. In this way you turn “poison into medicine,” and turn the notion that there is something wrong with you on its head.
5. Breathe out space for all of the emotions.
Breathe out space? What do you mean by breathe out space? I am frequently asked this question. The way that each person imagines breathing out space will vary from person to person. When I practice Tonglen, the way that I imagine it is as follows: when I’m stressed or upset I feel like I am full of my negative emotions. I feel like the pressure within me is high, and there is no space for anything else. I feel tense, tight, on edge, and unable to bend with the winds of living. When I breathe in my emotions and breathe out space, I feel like some of the pressure has released. There are still negative emotions present, but they are not completely consuming, and there is room for other experiences. Sometimes this practice relieves me enormously, and sometimes it simply eases the severity of my experience, but it is always helpful.
But how can Tonglen help us like others?
After you have practiced Tonglen for yourself, you can practice it for others. Follow the guidelines as listed above, but instead of noticing your emotions, consider anyone else who might be feeling like you. This imagining can encompass people in your office, your town, or even across the country. The scope that you refer to is up to you. But, the exercise remains the same: speak the emotions, then breathe them in for others, and then breathe out space for others.
Tonglen practice for others is a primary method that Buddhists use to develop the bodhichitta heart – a heart that is expansive and compassionate toward others. In my experience, performing Tonglen for others has two main benefits: first, you recognize that you are not alone in your struggles; second, you cultivate the emotion of compassion, which is a powerful resilience factor, and contributor to personal well-being.
Loving Kindness Meditation
Within the same meditation family as Tonglen, is the practice of loving kindness. Researchers have found that loving kindness meditations have been shown to increase feelings of connectedness to other people, and to nature. Most loving kindness meditations are carried out as follows: first, the person meditating imagines someone she cares about in her mind’s eye. The person imagined should be someone with whom the meditator has a warm, simple relationship. I often suggest that this should be a person who just makes you smile when you think of her – this can even be a pet. Next, the meditator sends this loved one kind wishes. These wishes can be phrased however the meditator chooses. Common phrases used in guided loving kindness meditations include, “I wish you safety,” and “I wish you happiness.” After slowly sending kindness to the loved one in her mind’s eye, the meditator imagines the loved one sending kind wishes back to her. She sees her loved one turn and say to her, “I wish you safety,” or “I wish you happiness,” or any other kind wish that the meditator chooses.
After completing the loving kindness meditation for someone she loves, the meditator often moves on to sending kind wishes to someone with whom she has difficulty with. The act of sending kind wishes to someone you dislike can soften your heart toward that person. In fact, research has found that the regular practice of loving kindness meditation can even reduce unconscious biases toward stigmatized social groups. You can further this heart expanding effect by imagining this person sending kind wishes back to you. There is a clear similarity between the loving kindness meditation and the Ben Franklin effect. By giving something, and receiving something kind in return (even if these are simply well-wishes), you can suggest to your brain that you actually like this person, and thus feelings of liking can grow.
So, what did I do regarding this colleague of mine who I dislike? One day while at the same function I made a point of approaching her and asking her about herself. I asked how she found herself in Flagstaff, and complimented her good work with a particular group of players (this work actually was good). I asked for advice regarding a problem I’d encountered with an athlete, and thanked her for her thoughts. On this occasion my approach improved my experience of the event that we shared together. I went through the rest of the afternoon at ease in her company. I must confess, I won’t be investing more energy in becoming closer friends with this woman, but my actions did improve our relationship, and I continue to take the same approach when we find ourselves together.
Strategies aside, I have come to believe there are few people in the world who are truly bad. Almost always when we learn someone’s story we can understand why she behaves the way she does. But, we rarely do learn each other’s stories – especially those belonging to those who we’ve decided we don’t like. What would happen if we treated each other like we already know the story? How would it change the way we felt about others if we decided to serve, rather than judge, them? How would such actions change the way we felt about ourselves? In doing these things, we may just find that liking—even loving—isn’t so hard after all.
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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