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Compassionate Communication Orient Your Attention to the Other Person

As I arrived at yoga class the other day, I learned that the electricity was out, which meant there would be no heat and no music. The instructor awkwardly apologized, assuring us that the class was usually about 80 degrees (instead of 50) and normally accompanied by inspiring music. Also, she said, it was a new time slot, which explained why there were only three people in the huge room.

Despite the unexpected hurdles, the class ended up being phenomenal, although while sinking into my final savasana, I experienced a vivid memory that jarred me out of relaxation. I remembered a time when I had shown up to teach a business communication class at the college and nothing was functioning correctly. Even though there was power, the LCD projector would not turn on and I couldn’t connect to the internet. The clock was ticking as I fumbled, feeling quite embarrassed while a class of 50 college students waited impatiently. On the outside I probably appeared somewhat calm and collected, joking about Murphy’s Law, but inside I felt frazzled, inept, and silently judged.

In the midst of this memory, I heard my mind reveal the punch line: “We are all the same. We all share the same fear.” Despite strict instructions not to linger on thoughts during savasana, I couldn’t help but wonder if my instructor had feared appearing incompetent while starting her two-person frigid and music-less class. I suddenly felt very connected to her, overcome with a warm heart. Upon leaving, I made sure to tell her that she had made my day, and I left feeling quite happy.

I was reminded of a tenet in my field of study, which states that each person in any interpersonal interaction is aware of three identities simultaneously:


  • Who you think you are.
  • Who you think the other person is.
  • Who you think the other person thinks you are.



At that moment it dawned on me that much of our suffering comes from a focus on whom we think the other person thinks we are (Identity 3).

That same day, the Dalai Lama posted this on his Facebook wall, “The ultimate source of a happy life is warm-heartedness. This means extending to others the kind of concern we have for ourselves.”

We are always so concerned with what others think of us. So perhaps a new approach to compassion is being concerned with what others think we think of them.

For the remainder of the day I tried this approach with every important person in my life. My husband came home from work complaining about something and then quieted himself, probably feeling like a whiner. “Get it out,” I encouraged, “I’m listening.” At bedtime, my eight-year-old was about to ask me to stay and cuddle, when she sensed that she should be a big girl and just go to sleep on her own. So I said, “Scoot over. I’m lonely, too.” My own mother, often concerned about bothering me, hesitantly emailed inquiring whether or not she should make a birthday cake for me on Friday. I wrote back, “I absolutely need your cake.”

I don’t know if my attempts at validating others temporarily alleviated their human fears of judgment and disregard, but one thing is for sure: it certainly made my day.  I went to bed that night truly feeling like I had done right by the world, and I didn’t really do that much. I imagined what it would be like if we all re-focused our own impression management toward validating others, and I wondered if I could remember to do this day after day. I finally fell peacefully asleep without dreams of forgetting to be somewhere or showing up unprepared. The Dalai Lama was right (yet again): Warm-heartedness toward others, in this case through simple validation, does indeed seem to be a source of happiness, at least for me. And who knows, maybe for you too. Pass it on.

Dr. Carrie Hutchinson earned her PhD from the University of California Santa Barbara in Communication and Psychology. She is a professor at Santa Barbara City College and the author of Interpersonal Communication: Navigating Relationships in a Changing World.




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