Our guest blogger today is William Ury, cofounder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, and one of the world’s best-known and most influential experts on negotiation. Ury is the author of Getting to Yes with Yourself (and other worthy opponents) and coauthor of Getting to Yes, the bestselling negotiation book in the world.
Psychologists have estimated that we have anywhere between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts a day. The majority of those—as high as 80 percent—are thought to be negative: obsessing about mistakes, battling guilt, or thinking about inadequacies. For some, the harsh critical voice of our inner judge is stronger, for others weaker, but perhaps no one escapes it. “You said the wrong thing!” “How could you have been so blind?” “You did a terrible job!” Each negative thought is a no to yourself. There is a saying that goes, “if you talked to your friends the way you talk to yourself, you wouldn’t have any.”
Self-judgment may be the greatest barrier to self-understanding.
If we want to understand another human being, there is no better way than to listen to them with empathy like a close friend would. If you wish to understand yourself, the same rule applies: listen with empathy. Instead of talking negatively to yourself, try to listen to yourself with respect and positive attention. Instead of judging yourself, accept yourself just as you are.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy, but it is different. Sympathy means ‘to feel with.’ It means to feel sorry for a person’s predicament, but without necessarily understanding it. Empathy, in contrast, means ‘to feel into.’ It means to understand what it is like to be in that situation.
Listening to yourself with empathy goes one level deeper than observing.
To observe is to see from the outside whereas to listen is to feel from the inside. Observing offers you a detached view whereas listening gives you an intimate understanding. Observation gives us the understanding of a scientist studying what a beetle looks like under a microscope whereas listening gives you the understanding of what it feels like to be a beetle. You can benefit from both modalities together. Anthropologists have found that the best way to understand a foreign culture is to participate in it actively and at the same time to maintain an outside observer’s perspective. I find this method, called participant-observation, is equally useful when it comes to understanding ourselves.
As I listen to myself, I notice that the majority of my problematic emotions are the same everyday. For example, one anxiety that pops up regularly concerns the daily to-do list that only seems to expand: will I be able to get through it? To understand and reduce the intensity of these recurring feelings, I have come up with a daily exercise: in the morning, I imagine sitting at a kitchen table. As each familiar thought or emotion such as anxiety or fear, shame or pride shows up, I offer it an imaginary seat. I have learned to welcome all customers, no one excluded. I seek to treat them as the old friends or acquaintances that they are. As the kitchen table fills up, I listen to the free-flowing conversation of feelings and thoughts.
Listening to yourself helps you not only to understand yourself, but to accept yourself just as you are.
If self-judgment is a no to self, self-acceptance is a yes to self, perhaps the greatest gift we can give ourselves. Some might worry that accepting themselves as they are will diminish the motivation to make positive changes, but I have found that the exact opposite is usually true. Acceptance can create the sense of safety within which we can more easily face a problem and work on it. As Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, once noted: “The curious paradox is that if I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
Join us September 10th to hear more from William Ury at our Soundview Live webinar: Six Steps to Getting What You Really Want in Life.