It’s sometimes hard to sympathize with your spouse, much less the cashier who is fumbling with your change. But that’s compassion—caring about another’s suffering and trying to help (even if that means just waiting patiently). Experts, including the vice president of a hospice organization and a prison minister, show how a little love goes a long way.
John Mastrojohn: Lighten a Load
I’ve seen how simple things make such a difference for family caregivers who never get a break: a neighbor going to the grocery store for them or a local teenager shoveling the snow. One hospice volunteer was a beautician, and she would do hair, makeup, and nails for the patients and their families. Folks appreciated it so much. They would say, “I don’t have time to go out of the house to do this.” I remember one time I had just picked up some clothes at the dry cleaner when it started pouring rain. Everything was going to get soaked on my way back to the car, so I stood there, hoping the storm would pass. A stranger came up to me, opened her umbrella, and said, “Can I help you get to your car?” It was a small thing, but I thought, I now have to pay that forward.
John Mastrojohn is the executive vice president of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
Helen Riess: Don’t Judge—Hug
If someone is upset or acting unusual, consider why before you judge or get annoyed. There’s probably a backstory that would make you react differently. And when someone does share, you don’t have to have a perfect answer. You can just say, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.” Don’t forget the power of touch, especially for children, who thrive on feeling accepted as whole people. Give hugs and pats on the head or a squeeze of the hand. For a stranger who seems open to it, the area between the shoulder and the elbow is considered the safe zone for touching. And you can always simply say, “I want the best for you.”
Helen Riess, M.D., is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the founder of Empathetics, a company that makes Web-based empathy-training e-learning products. She lives in Wayland, Massachusetts.
Jim Liske: See Yourself in Them
For the first 18 years that I was a pastor, I was ignorant of those who committed crimes. I just didn’t see them, nor was I aware of their families. Then my nephew went to prison, and suddenly I had empathy. The main difference between those behind bars and everyone else is they’ve been caught. A lot of people have texted while driving and were lucky enough not to have had an accident. We incarcerate many people for addiction, not crime, and we all have an addiction. I’m a workaholic. Once we find our empathy, it’s easier to act—helping children whose parents go to prison or lobbying for mental-health programs. Look for what’s broken and think about how you can fix it.
Jim Liske is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship ministries. He lives in Holland, Michigan.
Melinda Gates: Let Your Heart Break
The world is full of what seem like intractable problems. Often we let that paralyze us. Instead, let it spur you to action. There are some people in the world that we can’t help, but there are so many more that we can. So when you see a mother and her children suffering in another part of the world, don’t look away. Look right at them. Let them break your heart, then let your empathy and your talents help you make a difference in the lives of others. Whether you volunteer every week or just a few times a year, your time and unique skills are invaluable.
Melinda Gates is the cochair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She lives in Seattle.
Carrie Cole: Respond, Always
Compassion means you can see the other person’s side, and it’s especially important in your marriage or relationship. Any time your partner is hurting and speaks out, he wants a connection with you. If he didn’t, he would keep the thought to himself. Stop and acknowledge him and comment in a positive way—in a tone of voice that sounds sincere, not placating. It can be hard when you’re feeling annoyed, so try to think about the wonderful things that made you fall in love with him.
Carrie Cole is a master-certified Gottman relationship therapist and the co-owner of the Center for Relationship Wellness, in Houston. She lives in Houston.