Brain Science – Episode #6

Respect, empathy, and compassion

living and being beside others

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Mireille and Adam discuss empathy, respect, and compassion and the role each of these interpersonal constructs play in strengthening our relationships, both personally and professionally. What exactly is empathy, respect, and compassion? What are key indicator lights to be aware of when any of them are lacking or off-kilter? We also discuss Dr. John Gottman’s research on “The Four Horsemen” in relationships.


Notes & Links

📝 Edit Notes

Respect, empathy, and compassion as multiple parts of a system:

  1. We need understanding or respect for others. Respect means I don’t have to have experienced what someone else has in order for it to be true.
  2. We use empathy to “see” things from another’s perspective, not my perspective of their perspective.
  3. Compassion as “suffering with” others – holding the awareness of another’s experience and coming alongside them. This results in action not simply knowledge.

INQUIRE about others’ experience – instead of telling someone how they should feel or think YOU can ask questions to improve the clarity of YOUR understanding of THEIR experience. This is a way in which we can “build” our skill in terms of having empathy for others. Seek to understand, not judge.

Have REGARD for others’ experiences – this is evidence of respect. It is easy to use ourselves to make sense of what we don’t know; therefore, we need to learn how to consider the direction of the “lens” we use.

Collaboration as a key component of respect and empathy. How do we make sense of others’ perspectives or experiences?

Challenges with feedback from others:

  • Invalidation ==> telling someone that they shouldn’t feel or think what they do, in fact, think or feel.
  • We are apt to struggle with an undercurrent of distrust in one’s self when we get feedback like this from others.

Indicator lights of having difficulty giving respect, empathy, or compassion with ourselves and others.

  1. Arguing or poor communication
  2. Depression (cognitive rigidity)
  3. Guilt as reflection of giving something I don’t have to give or not giving someone what they want
  4. Anxiety (chaos)

We can acquire and cultivate the skills of respect, empathy, and compassion. We don’t improve any skill we don’t practice. How can we do things differently relationally?

  • Create clear expectations for ourselves and others. Use clarity to help manage these differently
  • Co-operate with others

Dr. John Gottman’s 4 horsemen in (marital/couple) relationships:

  1. Criticism - negative judgments in absolute terms
  2. Defensiveness - avoiding responsibility or blaming others
  3. Contempt - a fundamental sense of disrespect, ridicule or disgust. Name calling – erodes the fabric of a relationship. (ex. mean-spirited sarcasm or eye rolling) **This is the most problematic in a relationship.
  4. Stonewalling - putting a wall between you and your partner

Being able to identify the Four Horsemen in your conflict discussions is a necessary first step to eliminating them, but this knowledge is not enough. To drive away destructive communication and conflict patterns, you must replace them with healthy, productive ones.

Fortunately, each horseman has a proven positive behavior that will counteract negativity.

This infographic highlights some of Dr. John Gottman’s most notable research findings on marriage and couple relationships.

What’s a good action plan for change? Self-awareness is key place to start.


📝 Edit Transcript


Play the audio to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧

When I think about healthy relationships out there, whether they’re deeply intimate, like husband and wife, or partners, or spouses, or even with children, grandparents, whatever - immediate family - they are very much different than, say, communities, where you don’t really connect directly, but you are both considered part of a community. This idea of empathy, compassion and respect really thrive in those kind of arenas and produce healthy relationships… But they’re very deep subjects, and in some cases the idea of compassion isn’t even possible for some, because it kind of requires this component called empathy.

And then respect is always this sort of outlier that just hangs out there, and it’s just so hard to really dig into relationships without these three being very much aware from the person’s perspective and how they participate in community.

Yeah, I think you’re spot on. These three work as a system, in that at the heart of being human I have to have respect around other people, because there’s no other person that is identical to me. So without understanding and having an idea of another that is separate from me, that might not look like me, think like me or do like me - that gets to be okay, and actually is a really functional and adaptive thing. But then empathy is also embedded in that, because it also means with that sense of respect I can identify or maneuver myself to see things from another person’s perspective, and how an experience or an interaction might feel to them… And then I’m onboarding compassion alongside of that. Because compassion isn’t just this sense of sympathy, but rather some people would actually call it “suffering with” another.

So not only do I sort of hold an awareness of another person’s emotional experience, but an ability to come alongside them and be present with them in a way in which I would also experience some of that emotion that they too feel.

Right, to play an active role in maybe even alleviating their troubles.

Right…? Because empathy is seeing their point of view and understanding from their point of view. Compassion is one step further, which is seeing that, feeling that, being there with them, but then also wanting to change that for them, and playing a role in that; kind of partnering them even.

[03:54] Yeah, and I think that’s the other piece of compassion - it cues something in us to want to do something for that person to alleviate the suffering that they’re encountering. In my world I see this often in the experience of people grieving… Because grieving is an incredibly painful process. So people will offer solutions or strategies, or tell people what they should be doing, when grief is an incredibly individualized gig. And part of that is because it’s rooted in the relationship that someone has with another, be it a person, or an animal, or something that they really cared about. So when we lose that, we have to make this maneuver of something tangible to an intangible place in our life… And that’s a process.

So nobody else is going to have that same relationship with that other person, but people are very quick to offer input around what people “should” be doing.

I love that, “should.” “You should be doing this…” I can almost hear the contempt - which we’ll probably talk about - in someone’s voice, saying something like that to someone else… Because when you lack the empathy and compassion, I kind of can assume that contempt comes in there instead.

Yeah. Well, it presumes an awareness of another without that actual foundation. I might offer, what if we practiced being more inquisitive of someone’s experience, as opposed to leading my response with a statement over what they coulda/woulda/shoulda done.

How would that change an interaction?

It’s kind of like “Listen first, speak second…”

Well, it’s interesting; I think it actually prompts the other person to be more reflective, right?

The other person meaning the person who has the troubles, and the person who’s being contemptful?

Right, right. So if you brought a problem to me and said “Hey, Mireille, I’m struggling with X, Y or Z”, and I was like “Well, here’s what you should do.”


That may or may not be helpful. Whereas if I said “Huh. What’s that like?” To some degree, it’s – and I don’t mean it in an insulting or derogatory manner, but rather like “Tell me what goes through your mind? What are you thinking on? When does that occur?” I don’t know your world, your experience, so I wanna understand it, because without that sense of understanding I can’t know.

Yeah. It’s sort of the back-story, the context… And without context, we often don’t make great decisions or can’t give great advice, because we don’t really understand what they’ve been through, why they’ve been through it, or why they think they’ve been through it, how they’ve already tried to remedy it… And it also gives you somebody’s frame of reference of how they have really taken this thing in their life, this trouble in their life, and how it’s become a big monster (or a small monster) to them… And it almost describes how they feel about it, you know what I mean? It’s almost like the building blocks of this problem and what they think it really is… And it could be rational or not.

Right, but think about how respect is really leading the charge… Because respect, if we’re talking about it through that perspective that says “This regard for the feelings, wishes, thoughts, rights or traditions of another person”, that’s sort of my step one of going “You’re not me, and you don’t have to be.” And if I don’t start there, then I’m really already off-kilter, because guess what I’m using as a reference point? Yourself. We tend to use what we know to make sense of what we don’t know. So I’m going to use my own template…

[08:04] Which makes sense…

Right. Imagine I’m just switching which way my lens is focused, so I put it back on me to try to understand you, which it may not fit you…

Right. “Well, here’s what I would have done… Here’s how I would have thought about that” or “Here’s what I would have said…” And then for some reason we’re blabbermouths and we say that out loud… And sometimes we don’t even mean to, really… Because it’s just like a natural response to wanna help someone, and the first thing you can think of is like “Well, here’s how I would have done it.” And the next thing you know they’re ashamed, and then now they’re not even to tell you anymore.

Yeah. It’s interesting, with working with people over the years, I tend to tell them, “I don’t know what you should do. But I want to walk with you to help you discover what you think would be best.” So if I sit here – like, really, it actually comes from a place of superiority. I always say “I might be the expert in some of this information or knowledge base, but who’s the expert on you?”

Right. You are, of course.

Yeah, right?! So I wanna collaborate and work together so that we can help you be your best self, and figure out what you’re going to do in living your life. I always say, “My ultimate goal is to work myself out of a job, that you would be able to do for you what I help you do for you.”

What I like about what you said there too is that if that person felt alone, they now are not alone. Even if you can’t tell them what to do, they have someone else to bounce their crazy (or perceived crazy) off of. I’m like that; I tell my wife “Am I crazy? Here’s what I’m thinking…” and sometimes she’s like “Yeah, you’re totally crazy.”

And sometimes she’s like “No, not really… I understand where you’re coming from with that… But have you considered this, this or this?” And she partners with me and walks with me through the concern or issue.

Right. But see how then you’ve already stepped into that next thing, which looks like empathy? Does she say “Well, you shouldn’t feel that way.”

No, I can’t recall her ever saying… Sometimes, because she’s a distinct helper, and she wants to solve my problems right away, because she wants to remove my pain. It’s not that she wants to disrespect me and have lack of empathy, so sometimes yes, but I wouldn’t say very often. She often asks questions before she offers solutions.

Right, because she’s trying to make sense of and have a respect for the fact that you’re not her.

And empathy looks like “I want to understand further how you arrived in putting those things together, because I wouldn’t put those together… But help me understand you.”

It’s interesting, even with parenting, in how we tend to do this a lot with kids… Thinking about kids who wake up in the middle of the night, like “I’m afraid of the dark.” “There’s nothing to be afraid of. You shouldn’t be afraid.”

Right. So you wanna diminish their fear, and almost make it not real.

Well, and the crazy part, ironically, is that you’re telling them that their perception, their internal world isn’t real.

Yeah, and that’s gotta be – I mean, especially in the kids’ place, where they’re still discovering… They don’t have experience, like we do, the wisdom we do, of many years or several decades. They’re still learning about their environment, and even themselves. And truly, what is real and what’s not real. There’s a lot of fantasy in a child’s mind. Kids believe in monsters, and things like that. Well, there really are monsters, they’re just not quite the same kind of monster as a kid makes in their mind. So it’s still real, but not quite real.

[11:54] Right, and – I mean, it’s dark, and shadows are real… And our brains can assimilate light and dark into a pattern that looks like a monster.

In what way don’t we all have our own sort of shading that creates monsters? So I might be apt to see a monster, ironically, in my world, or (God forbid) in another person… Not because the other person is that, but because that’s how their brain put together the information.

When we talk about healthy or unhealthy adaptive or maladaptive things in relationship, this way of communicating is really significant… Because it happens in certain families where things are more covert. So I won’t say somebody – let’s take for example drinking behaviors; there’s a range of what is sort of social drinking, versus non-functional, or looks like abuse or dependence. But this way of communicating in that world is sort of a denial minimizing of the dynamics that are actually happening. And so I’m gonna say “That’s not a big deal.” So whenever I actually disavow or don’t give credence to another person’s view, I’m actually participating in that erosion of their internal world. Does that make sense?

Yeah. So they question themselves… They almost feel crazy, like “Wow, so what I’m feeling isn’t true. So all these things I thought were true are not true”, at least in that split moment, and they begin to think almost like they think they’re crazy… Or question their mindset even.

Right. So it actually cultivates this undercurrent of distrust in themselves, or in yourself.

Wow… And how terrible is it to not trust yourself…?

Right. I will actually use the terminology of when people talk about anxiety in self-doubt. I feel like I live in a land of Swiss cheese, where I don’t know when or where the hole is gonna come, I just know I’m gonna fall.

Oh, boy… [laughs] Yeah, that’s paralyzing too, to feel like “Well, I always make the wrong choice. I can’t trust my choices.” So you have somebody that can’t take a positive, trustworthy step forward in true life, and potentially just their emotions and relationships, because they’re so paralyzed by this Swiss cheese effect, so to speak… “When will I fall?”

Right. When you think about acquiring a skill… If I were to ask you, “Adam, what skill do you think that you have practiced well, that you have a lot of confidence in, that you can go into that lane without any sort of effort or consideration?”, anything come to mind?

I think respect. I think I practice respect quite well. I like to consider where someone’s at, understand what their concerns are, and then that evolves into an apathetic position… So I think I try really hard to [unintelligible 00:15:26.18] I’m not always good at it, but I’m definitely trying to practice it.

Do you think that there were things throughout your life, be it relational experiences or events that happened wherein maybe you totally misstepped and you didn’t get it right, that helped you learn that? Or do you have any hypotheses as it relates to how you were able to cultivate respect?

I haven’t had a half hour to mull on this and think about it, but I would say that - like with anything for me or anyone else - I’ve learned through trial and error, or by doing, or by in many ways failing… I’m sure I’ve failed many times in my life to respect someone else, which helped me understand how to respect someone else.

[16:14] Sure. So re-learning, and going “I thought that this was okay, but maybe this doesn’t work very well when I do it this way…”, and really that’s what I want people to take away, is that all of these things that we talk about are skills that we can acquire over time, and not everyone’s in the same place. So often people want to correlate age with maturity, or age with skill.

Yeah, that’s not the truth. It’s easy to assume that, and it makes sense to assume it, because you assume because someone’s 30 they should be in a 30-year-old’s mindset… However, their experiences in life, trauma etc. and you mentioned loss earlier, geez… Losing a loved one or parents truly changes you in quite deep ways. So someone who’s 30 may not actually be in that 30-year-old mindset, because they’ve had some significant troubles in their life.

Right. I mean, in the same way we can look at how kids grow as based on their environments. Some kids – I mean, you can talk to ten different parents about their expectations of their kids and what things they ought to be doing at that age, and some parents are perfectly settled about letting their kids do one activity or another, that another parent would feel is atrocious, like “Oh, that’s so far beyond my child’s reach, so I’m not gonna let them do that.” The fundamental thing is we never - it doesn’t matter who you are, none of us get better at anything that we don’t practice.

I like this idea, for those listening thinking “Wow, I can actually change my position on empathy. I can get better at being empathetic.” I like that, because that gives me hope that people who have difficulty with compassion, respect or empathy, that they realize that it takes practice, and that they can change, and it’s not so much just forced change. It often requires some learning in that, and some time in that, and that it’s okay.

Most certainly. And I do wanna input one little caveat, because I don’t want people to fall on the other far end of the spectrum and then go “Oh, I ONLY need to be considerate of others and not myself.”

Oh, boy…

Because that can happen, too.

Yeah, there’s definitely people who forget about themselves, basically. Self-care, all the necessary things to live healthily, or have a healthy brain perspective… Which is why I love doing this show with you, because I’ve realized that our brain is the most important; without it, we wouldn’t be human, because we wouldn’t have motor skills, or all the things that our brain does… But realizing there are so many things about the brain that explain how we are and who we are, and how we can work well with one another. That’s what I love so much about this show, and that idea that people can change, and the brain plays such a key role in that.

And it’s interesting, because we might actually have a certain level of awareness or skill, and then something else will happen and then we go “Oh, man… Shoot, I thought I was a lot further along, or far more equipped…”

“…and I’m not!”

Right…? So it’s like, I can know how valuable sleep is. That if I want to do better with myself and with others, that probably sleep should be in my top three. But I’m like “No, I can just –” I mean, I don’t know if it’s just my individual thing, being a mom, being in the field I’m in or what, but I’m always apt to be like “Oh, I’ll just keep pushing”, maybe it’s a little type A in there… But I will push harder and longer to get whatever needs to be done, done, without regard for the implications on myself. So it’s interesting, we want to sort of put respect, empathy and compassion all in the lane of others, but let’s flip it for a second and apply it to ourselves.

I think about it in terms of our limits. We want to infer that because I’ve done something at one point in time, I should be able to do that. Take, for example, staying up late, pulling all-nighters when you’re in college or grad school, or doing whatever project startup etc. You can go full-tilt, and it’s like “Dude, I’ve got coffee. We can just keep going.”

Right. There are times when – so this is my rationale with it; I’ve done this a couple times, meaning I’ve pushed the boundary and lacked the empathy and compassion for myself to do better self-care… In seasons. So I say to someone in that kind of moment, if you’re encountering this notion of pushing yourself beyond your limits, understand that you’re building some sort of debt. In software they call it tech debt. I don’t know what you would call it in personal scenarios like this, but maybe just emotional debt, or just fatigue or whatever, but basically allow yourself to do something like that to push yourself beyond the limit, but understand that you do have a limit, and only do it for a season. So pick a timeframe - a month, six months; give yourself a timeframe where it’s okay, and you understand what you’re doing, but then you’ve got a certain limit to say “Okay, now I’ve gotta stop doing this.”

Right, that’s spot on. I can think back when I was in my first semester of graduate school… I think about it like allocating. We wanna allocate our energy, and that really starts with the respect over “What am I putting on my plate and what are the implications of those things I’m doing?” When I started graduate school I was still coaching a highly successful, competitive gymnastics team. It was new. I had a number of other life variables that were different, and the learning curve obviously was steep, or like “This is a whole other tier of education and commitment…” And my program was very hands-on focused; so not only was I learning things in the classroom, but then I also had to go out and do whatever I was learning live, be it with a patient… Oh, and then have supervision on top of that. And then it was like “Also, we’re going to require you to go look at yourself and your own therapy, so we’re gonna deconstruct the entire way in which you see your world.”

I thought I could just keep running as I used to once upon a time run. But when you start taking the pieces apart and going “Oh, you mean I have to shift gears, because the incline–” Just like a vehicle - if it’s pulling more weight, do I stay in the same gear, or do I downshift, so that I can actually utilize more torque, more power, to be able to pull what I need to pull?

And once again, who’s the same?

I’ll throw one more analogy in there, just because I’m a mountain-biker… And when you shift a mountain-bike – or just any bike, I suppose, if you have fears… It’s difficult to shift under load.

So if you have a heavy weight on you, or if you’re pushing forward on the pedals and you try to shift up or down, you generally should let off the push in the pedal, just slightly enough to allow the gear to shift.

Oh, so it would be like you have some compassion for the struggle.

Right. That’s a mechanical compassion. I love it.

Yeah. You have to ease off of it a little bit.

[24:06] Right. So if we’re practicing thinking of these concepts in a system, be it with others or with ourselves, don’t all parts count?

All the time. And as one thing shifts, I have to also then shift or reallocate… Which is interesting, because ironically, that also poses another challenge, like we talked about previously with habits. Because we wanna automate as much as we can, because it takes less energy.

That’s right.

But I have to recognize that “Oh, I’m practicing doing a new skill, and so I have to sort of change up how I do it.” Another example of what this might look like from a practical perspective is, you know, when I was in graduate school and trying to look at how do I reallocate, like “Oh wow, this first semester was not so good”, hence why I was ridiculously sick by the time finals came… [laughs] But see - because my body gave me a feedback that said “Mireille, this isn’t gonna work. You can’t sustain this”, then I had to go “Oh, I think I probably need to do some exercise. That might help me.” But I still had that same demand. So it looked like even changing up my commitments in both school and work and personally, to go “I need to tether in something that is going to give me energy and discharge the negative energy, so that I can keep going.” Because compassion and empathy doesn’t just look like “Oh…! Well, that sucks. Keep going. Hoorah!”, like I’ve got a cheerleader… But rather this reallocation.

So I started to train with a trainer, just once a week, because I was like “That’s what I can commit to. I’ve got X amount of time”, and I didn’t try to change other things. It was like “What one thing can I tether in, can I braid in to what I’m already doing, that would buffer?” So I think about it like buffering all of these other energy-depleting sort of responsibilities… Even if they’re positive. So I don’t want you to think like “Oh, this only is negative.” It can all be good stuff, but it doesn’t mean you’re not outputting too much energy than what you’ve got to give.

And then you get sick, or something… Something happens. There’s some sort of feedback, from your ability to sleep, getting sick, snapping at your friends, not relating well with others, falling asleep in class… Who knows…? There’s some sort of feedback that says “What you’re doing and how you’re doing it isn’t working. You’ve gotta change.”

Right. So do you have any idea, if we’re talking about this both in relationship with ourselves and with others, how or what indicator lights might emerge if I’m not being respectful, compassionate or empathetic. Because i think it’s a question that’s worth reflecting on, of going “How would I know that this is off-kilter, or I need to modify? Is it always something physical, or might it be feedback from another individual? Might it be my work performance? What sort of queues or clues might we be attentive to and listen to, so that we know, “Oh, wait, I really think I need to start to pay attention to this and reflect further.”

Yeah… There’s a lot of things also… If you have a consistent relationship with someone and that relationship has some – some awareness in that relationship might be “How is your communication happening? Has it become more frequent, less frequent? When you do talk, do you talk shortly? Do you talk in long-form?” I would say communication with someone might be a key ingredient. I would say potentially even arguing. If arguments ensue. Or a lot of disagreement comes around…

[28:13] Whether it’s somebody you’re in close, intimate relationship, or if it’s just somebody brand new that you’re trying to essentially argue with over a point of view… And there’s no winning, because you will both walk away not right, or both right, and never really resolve it. So maybe arguing, communication… Those are some physical ways, but… What do you think?

I definitely think those are true, because ironically… Some researchers have contended that couples’ difficulties with communication - because a lot of people will go seek therapy when communication is a problem… But how many couples when they’re first dating have issues with communication?

A lot, because you’re actually learning quite a bit about the other person, and some people aren’t comfortable with sharing extensive information, because of past hurt, or whatever… But there’s some reason.

Yeah. But a lot of times they’re actually close, because you have a strong desire to know and understand, right? So when relationships are working well, communication generally does come easily.

…flow very well, yeah.

Yeah. And you actually come closer. So I might look at - you’re spot on - proximity to others. Who do I routinely interface with, and what do those exchanges or interactions look like? Do they feel good in the moment? Do they pay dividends after the fact? How do I feel even going to work? How do I work with people alongside of me?

Well, what you’re describing really requires a lot of self-awareness, and taking stock - I think we’ve said this before - of what’s going on. “Who am I talking to? Who are the close relationships in my life? How am I performing at my job?” Not so much just performing, but how much do I even like doing it? Do I like going? How do I wake up? Do I wake up angry? Do I go to sleep angry? Do I have difficulty going to sleep? All these little things… How am I eating? Am I eating well? Am I eating in ways that are healthy for me and not detrimental to me? Am I getting enough exercise, or any at all? All these little things or all these little components that create a healthy human being, that can have empathy, compassion, respect and healthy relationships.

I liked where you were going at though, which is what are some of the indicator lights of off-kilter, respect, empathy and compassion… So from a clinical standpoint, what does some of that manifest? We’ve given some examples, but is there more?

Well, I think that in some ways people – some people might talk about depression and anxiety… Well, we talk about them in all sorts of ways, but some would say depression looks more like a certain sort of cognitive rigidity, an inflexibility in one’s mind… Whereas anxiety is sort of like this never-ending chaos of like “I can’t settle my brain, I can’t settle my mind in any way.” So imagine if I have trouble shifting the lens in my mind over and over and over again… It could look like depression. And depression is really this sort of feedback loop of learned helplessness, like “Nothing I do really pays off. I can make efforts to change, I can try to talk to somebody differently, I can try to get more sleep, I can try to exercise, but nothing really seems to make a difference.”

[31:56] But another key thing, even with that depression – one of the key symptoms is actually sort of these excessive feelings of guilt. Guilt is actually an interesting indicator light, because guilt doesn’t work. I always describe it like a hook. I can’t feel guilty unless I allow someone to make me feel guilty. Like, I have a hook and I let people hang stuff on it.

Right… Okay.

And that isn’t always true. Sometimes guilt actually looks like “I just didn’t give somebody else what they wanted. Somebody else wanted me to do for them, that I couldn’t actually give to them.” Say you’re working on a team and one person - I’m sure this never happens; ever, ever - does all the work, and another person isn’t pulling their load… So I’m going to be upset, angry, irritable or feel guilty if I don’t do my part and do enough, and ironically, compensate for this other person. But then when that person gets the good grade that ironically I also got, I might feel resentful…

Because I gave, I extended and output so much more energy than what I actually had to give, and now I hold hostility towards you, because of what you didn’t give. But wait… Who gave it? I did.

Yeah, you did, because it was your feelings and your choice…

And what’s really interesting to that is that all this happens without the other person having any interaction or true input to it. All they did was do what they do, and you manufactured it all in your brain.

Right! And so welcome to the oddities in interpersonal exchanges, when you’re like “What just happened?! What’s going on?” Because you just had that entire scenario all by yourself.

Right. They’re now a villain and they didn’t do anything truly wrong.

Right. But so if I don’t communicate, ironically, and say “Hey, I’m feeling like I’m doing a little too much work here… How can we reallocate?” or “I only have this bandwidth to give…” It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to give that, but it might mean that right now, in light of all my responsibilities, commitments and where I’m at, even physically/physiologically, I don’t have that to give.

Yeah. This happens a lot in open source software. I’ll give you a quick scenario… So in open source software you often have this idea of someone who creates it and maintains the software… So a creator/maintainer, someone who does a majority of the work. And then you have the idea of contributors. They can be just one time, or a couple times, they could be long-time contributors, they could be people who eventually become part of the core team… But you have this guilt in open source when someone uses your software, expects support, expects feature sets; meanwhile, they’ve gotten all of the thing for free… Which isn’t the bad part; that’s the point of open source, that it is free, and that it is open source, and that anybody can use or contribute… But it’s this guilt factor that gets placed on maintainers and creators or contributors to essentially deliver value for someone that doesn’t – not exactly deserve it, but the person(s) don’t deserve the expectation to deliver… Do you know what I mean?

Yeah. But so, ironically, then what would also be helpful to navigate that differently would look like creating clarity around the expectation. So “I expect to have X, Y or Z done or completed by such-and-such in time, on such-and-such a day… Or not.” Or “Here’s what I can do.” Or “I can’t give you any certainty, because I am juggling all of these other plates right now.” It’s okay to say “I don’t have the bandwidth right now to give.” So even if we reframe or create flexibility around this word No, that No really just means “Not right now.” Then I can feel better about saying No.

[36:16] It might also mean maybe never…

It could… [laughs] It could. But that allows flexibility if you want to extend that, to say “I will put a sort of cursor/tab mark right there that I’m willing to revisit it at a later time.”

It kind of reminds me of the buffer you talk about with habits… It puts a buffer between the person and the other person; so the person who says “I can’t right now” or “Not right now” or “No, not right now” kind of thing, and the other person who has expectations of that person. It’s almost like they go to get upset with them, and then there’s this thing in front of them which is the “No, not right now”, and they’re like “Okay, you’re off the hook.”

There is no expectation. But one thing you said there, which was clarity and expectation - I’m a huge fan of, but not always perfect at, giving and receiving clear expectations. That alone in relationship - in all relationships, every relationship - is a key ingredient for this discontentment or contempt that can be manufactured, whether true or untrue. Because if there’s clear expectation of what to do, how to do it, who’s responsible, who’s going next, however you can frame that - that really provides so much clarity for the next step… And no one can be upset about it, because it’s clear; the expectation has been made clear, and you can’t hold somebody to a fire or to a thing that they didn’t know they were responsible for.

Amen. Yes, exactly. And that’s why these are so significant in working in teams, but just living beside other people. I think another word we can talk about is this sense of cooperating; “co” being more than one, right…? Operating - that more than one is operating at the same time. So it’s extending a certain degree of grace for others, which goes “You might have your own struggles, but I need to still *cooperate* with you in order to get this task done, or in order to…” whatever.

We’ve talked around a couple words here, and you’ve mentioned this John Gottman’s research… And I think it’s positioned on marital relationships, but the four horsemen - these four things are kind of crucial to a healthy relationship. Can you walk through that with us, please?

Yes. So John Gottman is the leading researcher when it comes to relationships. He has researched couples in romantic relationships for (oh, goodness) over 20 years. In fact, he’s had over 3,000 couples, and some for as long as 20 years… And he’s identified four key things when it comes to being destructive in relationships, which he references as the four horsemen.

The first one of them is criticism. Sometimes criticism can be constructive… That it’s feedback around what we could do differently, or do better. But criticism in the negative lane looks like making negative judgments or proclamations about other people in absolute terms.

“You always do this…” or “You are always bad at that.” Sorry, I had to jump in there. My bad. It’s coming out, it’s coming out…

[39:51] Exactly. It was, because we teach this to our kids… And ironically, the other day I had said something about “always” or “never”, and it was my child who reminded me, like “Mom, in this family we don’t say always and never.” I was like, “Thank you, child…” Because he gave back exactly what I’d been teaching him. And that will never (ironically) feel good, when criticism says “You are always, only ever, X or Y.” And so “You are always so stubborn. You just never listen.” It’s like assaulting somebody with words, to say “This is who you are” as a binary thing. You are either A, or B. You are either stubborn, or you work well with me.

Then we have defensiveness, which - this arises when we feel criticized or attacked. It’s sort of like “I’m gonna not take responsibility”, or again, blame this on another person. “Well, that wasn’t my fault. You didn’t tell me I was responsible to do X, Y or Z, so it’s up to you to manage that, alright?” Think hot potato when it comes to defensiveness. Like, “It’s not mine. Not mine. You take it. No, you.”

That’s right.

Then we’re gonna talk about contempt. And contempt is really a far more destructive form of criticism, that involves treating your partner fundamentally with this sense of disrespect, ridicule or disgust. This is rooted in name-calling, like “You’re such a jerk. I can’t believe you would do X, Y or Z. How dare you…?” Just name-calling to the hilt, which - I don’t care who you are, really; name-calling erodes the fabric of a relationship, because it’s generally derogatory in nature, and it’s binary. So we are categorically X or Y.

Sometimes even intentionally.

Sometimes you have contempt – not so much accidentally, but not truly intentionally… But then sometimes you do it and you intend to really word-assault them, and hurt their feelings and shame them, or… Your intention is emotional pain.

Right. Another example of this would be like mean-spirited sarcasm, or rolling your eyes… I’m sure you’ve never encountered–

I’ve never done that. No, I don’t…

I just really don’t do that, okay? I really don’t. I said that as funny, but I really don’t roll my eyes.

There’s a way in which it is so dismissive of another person, and just mean… To say “You aren’t worth my respect.” And it hurts.

I didn’t think about that worth part. That’s a value - you are not valuable. Your perspective isn’t valuable. Your feelings aren’t valuable.

Right, and that’s why this is such a powerful one, that of all of these four horsemen, contempt is the worst. And I would offer that the reason is because it’s rooted in a fundamental sense of disrespect, or a lack of value for another human being.

So we offer this fundamental layer that says “You’re human, and so we’re on the same team.” And if I wouldn’t do that to a family member or somebody else I care about, maybe I shouldn’t do that to a stranger either. And I can then also move it over into the lane of the self, and go “Do I allow myself to call myself names?”

Wow, that’s true.

[43:54] Do I call myself stupid? Do I call myself a moron? It’s a way in which we actually assault ourselves… Or even this sense of like “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just get it right?!” We reference this a lot in therapy, this inner critic, wherein there’s no space to err or be human. It’s like “Oh no, you will fall in line. No matter what day, what time, hop to, get with it, or shame on you!”

Yeah. I’m so glad that you’re reminding us to… When we apply these things - and we still have one more to go through - when we look at empathy, compassion, respect, or these four horsemen, to not just look at everyone else, but to the self… Because we often are our worst critics, and almost unanimously. We often think that it’s a one-way street, these things; it’s actually a two-way street. It’s how do we feel about us, how do we speak to ourselves - because that could be the beginning of someone’s issues. How they feel about themselves is stopping them from having these things for other people.

Yes. Fundamentally.

But continue, I don’t wanna derail us. I just wanted to put that out there. I love that you’re not only giving us the perspective of other people, but also ourselves.

Yeah. So this last one is stonewalling. Imagine – it’s just like the word sounds, you’re putting a wall between you and your partner or another person by either withdrawing or shutting down, or sort of distancing. It’s interesting, because in Gottman’s research he talks about – there tends to be a pursuer and a withdrawer… So stonewalling is very much this person who withdraws and retreats. A lot of times - I wanna say his research is like 85% of the time it tends to be the make in the relationship, and I would say that’s in heterosexual couples, not that that applies across the board.

But that this sense of “I need to go in my cave, so that I’m not overwhelmed by another person, and your emotions are just way too much; they’ve exceeded my threshold. So I’m gonna go away and I’ll come back out when you’re not that.” So there’s little hacks or tricks within this… It doesn’t have to be, again, a binary thing, of either “I leave or I stay”, because sometimes we do need to sort of temper…


Yes. We need to go away. So in our relationships, I would say there has to be a limit… Because the pursuer needs to know “Oh no, you’re coming back. You don’t get to just leave.”

You’re not getting off of this…

Right…? But the withdrawer needs time to be like “Hold on, I still need time to breathe and sort of recalibrate, so that I can come back to you, and remember that you’re not like an ogre.

[46:47] Right. Well, in any – oh, I can’t say that; in most scenarios there needs to be this sort of safe ground, this time to sort of decompress… Going back to HALT - when you’re hungry, angry, tired or lonely - in those scenarios you’re not gonna make the best decisions. You won’t even make the best decisions about your emotions in regards to the other person that you’re in relationship with.

So you will not be your best person, say the best things in the heat of the moment. Give yourself some time to relax, reflect, and then come back to the scenario in a more calm manner, where you have empathy, respect, compassion at the forefront of this conversation, rather than just your anger, or just your emotion.

Right, right. So we haven’t really – we’ve alluded to this, but no been specific… And I think that I don’t wanna have these conversations without some sense of action. Because we can do a lot of motions, but if I don’t have an action plan, I just end up treading water and not really getting to a different place that I wanna be. So… Awareness. Self-awareness, but awareness in general, is step one. If I can’t practice the art and dance of self-reflection, of looking in the mirror and go “Who am I? What do I prefer? What feels like it fits? How might I enhance my understanding of another, so that I can feel as though my relationships, my world - both with myself and others - is this art of a dance, of changes in tempo, and changes in music, wherein we both get to participate in how it feels good” is the most fundamental step in the process.


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