by Jonathan Robinson: The Compassion Questions. Have you noticed that some people are just plain irritating?
Either they’re incompetent, or liars, or loud mouths, or bullies, or some people are even all of the above. If you don’t live in a cave, you probably have to interact with such people from time to time. You may even have annoying people in your own family or house—which means you really have to deal with them. So how do you put up with people who “push your buttons,” without becoming a raving maniac? Of course, you need to be able to set some boundaries with such people so they don’t walk all over you. Yet even if you do that successfully, you’re just doing damage control. However, by learning how to view “difficult” people with compassion, you’ll feel better within yourself—and will likely help heal the troubled person you’re dealing with. Fortunately, there are two questions that can almost instantly transform irritation into forgiveness, and judgment into understanding. I call them the Compassion Questions.
Before revealing the Compassion Questions, it’s important to understand why some people are so annoying or hurtful. First of all, they often have very low self-esteem due to having experienced a traumatic upbringing. Because they didn’t receive the love they needed as a child, they use destructive and desperate measures to gain recognition as an adult. Second, they are usually unaware of the effect of their behavior on other people. After all, what they really want is love, and their way of behaving certainly doesn’t lead to that result. And thirdly, when they are judged by other people (even non-verbally), they feel lower self-esteem—and thereby become more annoying to be with.
Since when we judge people they feel more threatened, the best way to deal with difficult people is to avoid judging them in the first place. As they sense that you accept and understand them, they will tend to calm down and be easier to deal with. It sounds good in theory, but if you’ve ever had to deal with a truly annoying person, you know how hard it can be to forgive and forget. What’s needed is a method that can instantly change your focus away from what annoys you, and instead allows you to focus on the emotional pain of the person you’re dealing with. That’s exactly what the first “compassion question” allows you to do. When someone is acting in a way you find bothersome, ask yourself, “What pain must this person have experienced in the past in order to act so desperately now?”
After you ask yourself this question, try to imagine the answer. Was the person you find annoying unloved as a baby? Was he or she mistreated by parents or teachers? Perhaps this person was criticized and rejected by everyone, and what you’re seeing is the result of their pain. By imagining people as helpless, hurt little infants, you will likely feel some compassion for them. When you open your heart and let a little feeling of compassion in, it ends your annoyance. You can’t feel compassionate understanding and irritation at the same time. By feeling or seeing the pain of the person you’re dealing with, it will also help that person feel less threatened by you.
The second way to instantly forgive people and feel compassion for them is to see how their behavior is like something that you do. Often, we feel the most irritation at people who have an annoying behavior similar to one of our own—one that we try to hide from ourselves. For example, I used to get livid at a housemate who made a lot of noise in the kitchen. I thought he was incredibly inconsiderate of others. One day I confronted him about the clashing of pans and cupboards that he created. He shot back, “Well look who’s talking. If your stereo isn’t blaring, you’re wailing on your guitar or singing off key.” Indeed, he was right. Because I didn’t want to think of myself as inconsiderate of others, I projected all my stuff onto him.
Once you’re aware of how you do something similar to the person you’re annoyed with, there’s a tendency to be more understanding and to forgive. Therefore, the second “compassion question” is, “How is that person’s behavior like something that I do?” The more specifically you can pinpoint a behavior you do that is like the one that bothers you, the more understanding you are likely to be. In the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brothers’ eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” By looking at the “plank in your own eye,” you will automatically be sympathetic to the plight of the person you had previously judged.
Some people worry that being understanding or compassionate towards difficult people means you allow them to walk all over you. It doesn’t. It merely means you view their behavior from a more clear, bigger perspective. When you ask yourself either of the compassion questions, it helps you to better comprehend the situation at hand. From a clear mind and an open heart, it is much easier to see the appropriate actions to take with a troubled person. Instead of adding fuel to the fire, asking yourself these two questions will help to trigger a healing process.
Ultimately, we are all very much alike. We’ve all experienced being in a nasty mood, and most of us have even treated other people like dirt on occasion. When we’re in such a state of mind, it is only through understanding and caring that we are pulled out. The Compassion Questions are powerful. They can instantly transform your judgments into forgiveness and acceptance. Yet, because they are so effective, you may notice that your mind resists them. After all, feeling judgmental and self-righteous is a very safe and easy thing to do. Instead of using the questions with people who make you livid, begin practicing this method with people who just mildly annoy you. Once you see it can work with people you slightly judge, feel free to use these questions with people who really push your buttons. As you get good at turning annoyance into compassion, you will be helping to heal the heart of both you and others.