Are we losing our ability to have empathy and to connect?

We must have all done it, a gathering round the dinner table, and there’s a quiet moment as everybody is on their phones or tablets, with snippets of conversation in between. Perfectly normal, you might think: everybody is checking their phones. Except that that is what occurs a lot right through the year where people are together or alone. This world is now getting brilliantly connected. Yet do we notice any disconnect with others we’re with, our lack of attunement to others, that we don’t have empathy?

Being a big user myself but also a coach of relationship and interpersonal dynamics, I’m frequently observing what occurs in the use of the gadget in one’s hand. As the law now recognises, people can’t effectively concentrate on driving and use a mobile phone. The focus gets drawn into the latter and people miss crucial and sudden events on the road, with sometimes fatal results. When we focus on our phone, our attention is drawn away from what is occurring around us. Thus we are at best only partially present to those around us. To another, it can feel, if they are so bothered, that “the lights are on but nobody is at home”. Disconnected.

Connected but so disconnected

The “inner world” of the phone or tablet is very absorbing. It is also very addictive. It’s now reckoned that people up to the age of 18 now spend over 7 hours a day so connected. However, more concerning is the potential cost to interpersonal relationships. It has been found from social-scientific studies by Sarah Konrath that there are now 40% lower levels of empathy for the age group 25-39, that is roughly the age range of Millennials or Generation Y, than earlier age groups had, along with a corresponding rise in narcissism. It is also being suggested that people are losing the ability to cope with “doing nothing” and where we don’t have a distraction.

What empathy means

To have empathy is arguably the crucial area of development for people interpersonally, and a fundamental aspect of emotional intelligence. As we grow and mature, we realise more and more the need to understand and relate to others and take their needs into account. Empathy is the ability to tune into another and get a sense of where they are coming from, to gain some awareness of their perspective. Without “social awareness”, people can struggle to connect at a meaningful level and others may sense they do not really have a relationship with them in a way that fulfills.

Being connected with others is not a digital occurrence although that is one way we can communicate. What is crucial is the ability to be present and aware of another, right now, in the moment, person to person, in the room, with all our senses engaged, and with our thinking, feeling and behaviour. We hear, see, feel, smell and taste another. Psychologically we are “there” for another, available, conscious, valuing, caring. We notice what happens for another. We respond appropriately. We become attuned and resonate, and become as one.

You don’t get all that from a screen.

The challenge is that there are many who don’t have good levels of empathy. It’s a major weakness for those in business, for example. Leaders who lack empathy are poor leaders at the people level. If you are in a job where people skills matter, it can be costly. In personal relationships it is what makes for a good relationship: how often do you hear people complain that their partners are not “there” for them when they need them?

The danger is that people don’t know what they are not aware of. Thus building self awareness is an important starting point, and getting feedback from others. We can change things once we know what’s really going on, what we need to fix. And we ourselves have to take charge of it, to make the changes.

A fundamental human need is relationship. We are social beings. Being disconnected from others is a major source of unhappiness and depression.

Be present and aware and start enjoying your life

You must just pause a moment and check where your mind has been focused over the last hour or half-hour. How much do you let yourself really be present and aware of what’s happening right now?

For example, if you’re travelling to or from work, how much do you notice what’s around you, who you are with, what’s going on? Or is your mind preoccupied, such as with what’s been happening, or what might happen, or what’s on your phone? Are you off ruminating about things? Is your mind doing what it habitually does?

So, take a deep breath or two, become really aware, let go of those thoughts and give yourself a moment to really be present and aware of this moment….and this moment…and this one too.

When people are dying they often express regret that they didn’t do the simple things in life, like being with their loved ones, enjoying a sunset, spending time in their favourite place, just taking pleasure in being alive.

We’re so often away with our thoughts about the workplace, what’s going on, worrying about might happen, catastrophising, being irritated with what someone did or didn’t do, and the million and one other thoughts we have that fill our mind and can give us grief. Just check again with the suggestion I made at the start of this post, and recall what you have been thinking about recently and see whether it fits a pattern. It can be useful to spot these patterns and interrupt them.

To be present and aware is to be mindful

Mindfulness involves becoming present and aware, in the moment. It’s a superb tool for getting ourselves out of our preoccupations and ruminations, and getting off all those thoughts that don’t serve us. You may even already know this. But do you practice it, or does it just sit there as another idea, another “nice to do”, something I’ll “get round to sometime” (but not now)? Yet it is said that now is all you’ve got. This moment and the next. All else is our thoughts.

So spend some time right now being in the moment. Be aware of your breathing. And each time you find your mind has wandered, simply bring it back to the moment and being aware of your breathing.

And allow yourself to really enjoy this moment, and enjoy being alive, present and aware, as who you are. En-joy, breathe in the joy of this moment, and let your soul shine, as it is meant to do.

If you sign up for the free ecourse to the top left of this post, you can receive more help with developing this vital skill – and become alive once again.

Manage your mind to still your busy mind and be at peace

It’s a common complaint that I hear from people, that their minds are too busy, they can’t get it to be still, they are constantly plagued by negative or unhelpful thoughts, or simple are unable to switch off. It’s no surprise in today’s very stressful life but it’s not something limited to stress situations. Your mind can take you to hell and back if you’re not careful. This is where having the skill to manage your mind is so important. The mind is a maleable instrument and we can deal with these tendencies if we choose.

In yoga and other eastern practices, there’s a very strong emphasis on managing the mind, of knowing what’s going on “between the ears” so to speak, and choosing intentionally to manage it, to put it on one side, to drop it, to let it go, or to undertake self enquiry to learn more deeply what it’s really about and what it has to teach us about who we are.

In yoga and other disciplines, doing practices like hatha yoga and meditation are designed to help us become present, come “into the moment”, and let go of what’s “on the mind”. We can be aware of the Now as Eckhart Tolle calls it, where we can access “portals to the unmanifest” (The Power of Now) if we so choose too.

Managing the mind is also very practical. It enables us to pause and put on hold what’s troubling us, to centre ourselves, connect with our essential Self as I was writing above, and Be as who we are as we make contact with the world. Thus it is a valuable practice in “self-management”, as it is known in Emotional Intelligence circles, where we exercise self-control. Thus we are able to put on one side whatever emotional stuff is going on for us and rise above it. We can in yogic terms be the witness of our process, not absorbed in it.

So part of the work is to get to know that still space within, and meditation is good for this. However we also need self awareness, to be able to “read” what’s going on for us, to develop greater self knowledge, and thus have greater clarity on what we need to manage. Then we can use techniques in managing the mind to deal with what’s going on, let go and enter our centred state.

Being present and aware in whatever you are doing

In all the busyness of your day, I wonder if there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to be doing what you are doing? Or a part that thinks you’ve got too much to do? Or doesn’t want to be where you are? If so, you’re probably not being present.

Apart from considerations of making changes in those situations in the future, it can be worth reflecting on the totality of your awareness in that situation. We can get so heavily invested in our dislike of our current circumstances that we don’t allow ourselves to drop it, let go, surrender and “be” in that moment. Like simply dropping the inner dialogue that is resisting the situation. While we are so resisting, we’re consuming energy in a negative direction. In a way, it is a “denial of life,” as Eckhart Tolle says (in Stillness Speaks).

The skill is to pick up, become aware, that there’s even a tiny bit inside that doesn’t want to be doing it, and to let it go.

A “being in the moment” practice

“Being in the moment” practice can be done by becoming aware of the moment, noticing the inner dialogue, taking a deep breath, and on the out-breath say to yourself, “Let go” of whatever is going on, and then be aware of of your breathing for a few moments. This helps you become present. Then just allow yourself to focus on the Now, and on what’s going on. If your mind goes off somewhere, notice that, breathe, and come back to the present. Keep practicing that.

This is one reason why meditation is so useful, to give you training in letting go and being present. Mindfulness training does that same thing. So does going for a walk and being very present and aware as you do that.

Of course it helps even more if you can raise your awareness of your mind’s tendency to “go off on one” about whatever is going on in your mind, and how to manage that.