You're forced to spend time with someone who irritates or bores you: a stepfather, your brother's new wife, your boss. How do you find common ground?
First the practical solution. When you're confronted with a person you're connected to but feel no connection with, try this simple tactic: Pretend you're a talk show host or reporter and interview her. Ask questions. Listen. Ask more. Let your questions slide from the general to the gently personal. "It's sometimes astonishing what you will learn when you let people talk about themselves," says Deborah Tannen. "They become more animated, more interesting, when they're bathed in the spotlight of your interest." We all want to be heard, to be seen, and for ourselves, not as the boss or sister-in-law or whatever role the other person knows us in. "When you learn about people's struggles—what their hopes are, their dreams—this allows you to find the common ground," says Remen.
It's also worth considering, says Lisa Firestone, whether your original assessment of this person—boring, annoying, grating—is based on your own anxieties. Perhaps a part of you worries that your brother, now engaged, will have less time for you. Your resentment colors your opinion of his fiancée, even before you ever meet her.
This expectation of dislike can develop its own self-fulfilling momentum. When she first introduces herself, you may react a little coolly. She rightly reads your response as scorn and draws back. You find her even more unpleasant. The underlying issue, meanwhile, has nothing at all to do with her. Next time, Firestone suggests, "look at her directly, make eye contact." Try to see her as an individual, not an impediment to your desires.
If all of this querying—of the other person, of yourself—fails to improve the connection, there's a philosophical stance, a certain perspective you can adopt. Remen recalls a psychiatrist who when asked how he could work with someone he didn't like, said, "Ah, everyone, at depth, is beautiful. Remembering this can soften your judgment." Though we've heard it before, Firestone urges us to have compassion—even toward people who seem very different. "It's hard to hurt those with whom we feel we share something," she says. "If nothing else, we all have our imperfect humanity in common."
You aren't a member of an organized religion but yearn for spirituality in your life.
Virtually everyone at some point feels a need to be connected to something larger. This doesn't mean you've got to rush out to the nearest religious service. "There are so many definitions of the sacred," says Rabbi Tirzah Firestone (no relation to Lisa), a psychotherapist, counselor, and author of The Receiving: Reclaiming Jewish Women's Wisdom. "Some people can feel part of the infinite when they are in nature. Some people feel it doing yoga or meditation or listening to music."
Rachel Naomi Remen agrees. "One of the most profound ways to experience spirituality," she says, "is through the heart." Look around and ask, "Who needs me?" Give of your time and kindness. Some of the cancer patients Remen treats, perhaps newly awakened to a sense of life's fragility as well as its value, begin doing things like reading to sick children in the hospital. "Most often it is through love that we experience the great spirit that binds us," she says.
And don't automatically discount the church—or temple, or mosque—even if you're a skeptic or haven't attended one in years. There is grace in sharing a room with others who are seeking spiritual union. "Most cities have churches that offer ecumenical, informal services, if you're uncomfortable with sermons and such," says Rebekah Miles, who is not only an ethics professor but also an ordained Methodist minister. Or you may find, like millions before you, that you can be transported by the sacraments of a high service. "I often attend the Episcopal church near me," says Miles, despite her position in her own church. "The liturgy is really beautiful. It sounds holy"—which is why the language, and the longing for it, have endured.
We Hear You!