Whenever my instinct is to assume the worst—say, a driver cuts me off on the road or a friend takes three days to respond to my text even though I know she’s read my hilarious meme—it helps me to ask myself: What if the person is trying their best? When I believe they are, I stay out of judgment and my mind stops making up unhelpful stories that likely aren’t true.
But on Human Parts, Jane Park offers a question that goes a step further. She wonders what would happen if, whenever we feel free angry or irritated with someone, we stop to ask ourselves: What if they are suffering?
One Question to Help You Practice Empathy
Instead of simply assuming everyone’s trying their best, ask: ‘What if they’re secretly suffering?’
Park describes a time when a stranger at the community pool was awful to her. After a heated and bewildering exchange, she thought a lot about anger and how it’s, as she describes, “the external expression of internal sadness and unprocessed grief.” She asked herself: “What can I do as a grown-ass woman to protect myself from the anger of others — which is likely not even about me?” A powerful strategy, she found, is to assume they’re suffering.
“Assuming suffering” goes a step beyond “assuming positive intent.” What if the person in front of you is doing the best they can, but they are struggling? What if the world isn’t affording them any grace, so they feel like they have to steal it where they can?
If we stop to imagine this possibility, we go beyond simply shaking off the frustration and move toward “building a bridge of empathy,” as Park puts it. It’s a compelling exercise, one that I hope to try the next time someone is rude to me at the coffee shop or acting more distant for no apparent reason. “What if they’re overwhelmed with their job or upset that they can’t visit a sick parent during the holidays?” I can ask myself. Neither may be the actual case, but making room in my mind for such a scenario keeps me rooted in openness, which is where I wish to live.