In response to my recent review of Kelly Bryson’s book Don’t Be Nice, Be Real, a few of us on the Resistance as a Resource mailing list have been talking about empathy. Several people have asked, “How can I feel empathy for someone I don’t feel empathy for?” Good question. What I’d thought was a great idea seems more like a great conundrum.

Here’s how I resolve the conundrum: I can create empathy for others by first learning to empathize with myself, especially when my behaviors violate my image of who I want to be. A wonderful tool for self-empathy is The Value Question: “If I had ________ (that result), what would that do for me that’s even more important?”

Suppose, for example, that I’ve publicly and intentionally insulted Wilbur. By “intentional” I mean that in that moment I wanted him to feel insulted. Looking back, I now see that wanting Wilbur to feel insulted doesn’t fit my vision of who I want to be. Why would I do such a thing? The Value Question can help me find my deeper intentions.

If Wilbur were to feel insulted, what would that do for me that’s even more important? Wilbur would think twice about dismissing my ideas.

I notice two important things about this answer. First, the cause-and-effect is pretty shaky. Would feeling insulted really encourage Wilbur to think twice about my dismissing my ideas? Not likely. One of the benefits of The Value Question is that it helps me to uncover some of the questionable beliefs by which I’m choosing my behavior. We’ll come back to this in a minute. For now, simply note that the cause-and-effect is shaky.

The second important thing I notice about this answer is that my deeper reason for insulting Wilbur — wanting him to think twice about dismissing my ideas — still doesn’t fit my highest vision for myself. If my answer to The Value Question, doesn’t reflect who I want to be, that’s a clue that I haven’t searched deeply enough into my intentions.

So I’ll ask The Value Question again. If Wilbur were to think twice about dismissing my ideas, what would that do for me that’s even more important? He would consider my ideas more fully. And if he considers my ideas more fully, what would that do for me that’s even more important? I would feel that he respected me. And if I felt that Wilbur respected me, what would that do for me that’s even more important? I would feel safer offering my ideas.

With this step, I’ve found an intention I can truly empathize with. I want to feel safe offering my ideas. This fits my image of who I want to be. Having discovered a deeper intention that I can appreciate, I now have a choice: I can continue with The Value Question or I can discontinue it. The first few times you do this, I recommend continuing with The Value Question as far as you can go, as long as you get answers. And don’t give up if an answer doesn’t come immediately. The last few answers often take some time to emerge. Ask the question, and allow a minute or two for the answer to come. (See the book Core Transformation by Connirae and Tamara Andreas for more ideas about how to use The Value Question.)

Once I’ve discovered my good intentions and empathized with them, that’s a great time to explore the shaky cause-and-effect beliefs I’ve uncovered. Now I can begin to explore more effective ways to achieve my deeper intentions, ways that will cause less pain for others and for myself.

After I’ve done this a few times, I begin to see that even my most “unacceptable” behaviors, as dysfunction as those behaviors are, come from intentions that I can appreciate. The deeper intentions I discover behind even my most dysfunctional behaviors are not only positive intentions, but beautiful intentions.

And the biggest payoff for me has been this: As I learn to see the positive intentions behind even my most dysfunctional behaviors, I begin to see the possibility that other people’s “unacceptable” behaviors might also come from wonderful intentions. This is the beginning of empathy.

Experiment: Think of a recent experience where your behavior was not what you would like it to be. Use The Value Question to trace your intentions as far as you can trace them. What intention do you discover at the end of the line?

Experiment: Use The Value Question to trace four or five of your recent actions (good or bad) all the way to your deepest intentions. Do you find any qualities in common in those “ultimate intentions?” (Connirae and Tamara Andreas call these intentions “core states.”)