Humans have the capacity to read the inner states of other humans to an extraordinary extent. And whereas most humans are pretty good at doing that, coaches, psychotherapists and other helpers are called upon to be super-good at doing it. For coaches, a higher than usual level of empathy is a vital career competency. The good news is that empathy can be systematically developed and enhanced and mindfulness training is one route to doing that.
How does that work? Our biology and our evolutionary history offers some clues –
For almost all of the 2.6 million years of human history up until the beginning of settled agriculture about 10,000 years ago, our forebears lived in tribal bands – usually no bigger than 150 members. They had to compete with others for scarce resources, avoid predators and they spent almost all their waking hours searching for food. In that kind of harsh environment, those who were better able to cooperate generally lived longer and left more offspring. Bands that were better at teamwork generally beat those whose teamwork was weaker. Since they were more likely to survive it is their genes we have mainly inherited – and that gives us an in-built capacity to read what is happening “read” one another, as we must do if we are to work skilfully together.
These capabilities are driven by three different neural systems: we have the capacity to sense – and to simulate within our own experience – other people’s actions, their emotions and their thoughtsi.
The networks in your brain that are activated when you perform an action also activated when you see someone else perform it. That gives you, in your own body, a felt sense of what others experience in their bodiesii. The way these networks ‘mirror’ the behaviour of others gives them their name: mirror neurons. Think about what happens when you see someone choking up in distress, for example. Most likely you will notice in your own body some reflection of what they are actually feeling in theirs – although usually to a lesser extent. Or think about what happens when you see a friend or family member bursting with happiness. Most likely you’ll experience some of the physical components of elation for yourself.
Then, there are emotion-related circuits forming our experience. The neural circuits that are usually active when you yourself experience strong emotions, such as fear or anger, are sympathetically activated in you when you see others having the same feelings. That allows you to make sense of the feelings of othersiii, so the more aware you are of your own feelings and body sensations the better you will be at reading these in others.
Yet another set of circuits comes into play when you come to ‘read’ the thoughts and beliefs of other people. The prefrontal circuits involved in helping you to guess the thoughts of others work in conjunction with the circuits involved in sensing the feelings and actions of others to produce your overall perception of their inner experienceiv.
Systematic mindfulness training is designed to help you come to a deeper and clearer experience of your thoughts, your feelings and your body sensations. The more mindful you are – the better you are able to experience your own thoughts, feelings and sensations in each moment – the better you will be able to accurately perceive the thoughts, feelings and sensations of others.
The capacity for two people to ‘feel felt’v by each other is a key factor in allowing those in relationship to one another to feel vibrant, alive, understood and at peace. Perhaps counter-intuitively, a significant element in your capacity to read others is your capacity to read what is happening inside yourself. The more able you are to read what is happening in your own body the more accurately you’ll be able to read others and mindfulness training really helps.
Sit opposite a partner on fairly upright chairs – like office chairs or kitchen chairs - and both of you close your eyes. For just a minute or two, while maintaining a fairly upright and alert posture, allow yourselves to sink more deeply into the chairs, really giving your weight up to their support. Both of you bring your attention to your own processes of breathing.
Feel the air coming into your body, maybe sensing a movement in the ribs or a sense of slight stretching at the abdomen as the air comes in; a sense of gentle release, perhaps, as it goes out. As best you can, keep your attention with each breath – each in-breath and each out-breath. Not forcing, just allow the attention to rest with the breath and, when the mind wanders, as it surely will, gently and kindly returning the attention to the breath. Keep that up for one or two minutes.
Then, when they feel ready, one of you says “OK”. At that point both of you open your eyes and just look at the other person. Don’t say anything – just look. Take them in. Allow your attention rest with the other person in the same way it rested with the breath: simply attentive – open, curious, kind. This isn’t a hard-stare or an attempt to delve uninvited into their inner world. Just looking. When your mind wanders, bring it back – gently and kindly. If you need to look away, look away – then maybe look back.
Keep that up for two or three minutes and then discuss – what was that like? What thoughts, feelings and sensations showed up in you? What did you make of the other person?
This blog piece is adapted from a chapter in The Mindful Workplace (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) by Michael Chaskalson.
Mindfulness for Coaches with Michael Chaskalson – 5th May 2015
The programme consists of four half day sessions spread over eight weeks. Each session to run from 1.30pm to 5.30pm. Click here for more information.
Michael Chaskalson has a masters degree in the clinical applications of mindfulness and more than thirty-five years of personal practice. Michael has delivered mindfulness training in banking, financial services, professional services, media and construction organisations, the NHS, the civil service and several leading business schools. He has delivered Mindfulness for Coaches to professional coaches since 2005 and has also trained coaches in the civil service and a global pharmaceutical company.
- Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009) Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA.
- Preston, S.D., & de Waal, F.B.M. (2002) “Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 1–72.
- Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J., et al. (2004) Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain. Science, 303, 1157–1162.
- Singer, T. (2006) The neuronal basis and ontogeny of empathy and mind reading: Review of literature and implications for future research. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 30, 855–863.
- Siegel, D.J. (2007) The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, W.W. Norton & Company, New York.