The following is a mindfulness exercise developed by Richard Gillett. It describes a way to overcome your preconceived notions about people by shifting your attention and curiosity.
Start by choosing a person to work with, either someone who is physically present or someone you bring to your awareness in your imagination. If possible, have a pen and notebook, or paper to write on…. and make sure you are sitting comfortably.
Now, take a few deep breaths. You’re ready to start.
1. Look at the person. If the person is physically present, don’t stare of course—you can look away and then look back after a while. If you are doing this exercise entirely in your imagination, close your eyes and focus on the person’s image. If you can’t see an exact image, that is fine—simply focus on imagining that the person is present for you in some way—it can be a thought about the person’s presence with no clear image at all. This works just as well.
2. Now focus on how this person is different from you. Make some mental judgments about this person—you can use any ones you usually use or make some new ones. Allow yourself, for this exercise, to really get into this silent judging. Just for a minute. You can pause the audio while you do this.
3. If your eyes are open, close them now. Evaluate how you feel as you make such silent judgments, using a happiness scale of one to ten, ten being happiest. How do you feel when making your silent judgments about the other person? Now open your eyes and write down the number. This is your differences score.
4. When you’ve written down the number, close your eyes again. Now, shift your focus deliberately onto what you have in common with this other person.
– a. You and this other person both share the same basic human wishes, needs, and values—like, for instance, the wish for acceptance by others, the wish for affection, the need for self-respect, the need for safety and shelter.
– b. You very likely share a similar desire for trust, for warmth, for having fun, for making a contribution, for self-expression, for purpose, for independence.
– c. Choose any one or two of such universal human wishes, needs, or values that stand out as important for you. And then imagine that these same human values are just as strong in, just as important to, the person you are thinking about. PAUSE. If this person is physically present, open your eyes and see them anew with these human values that you both share. You can pause the audio as you do this.
5. Now, how do you feel—on the same happiness scale of one to ten, ten being happiest—when you experience what you have in common with the other person? Write down your score. This is your commonality score.
6. Compare your two scores. Your differences score and your commonality score. Did your level of happiness change?
7. This is the end of the exercise. You can repeat it anytime. You can practice it in a subway, a bus, at home. With repetition, it gets easier and easier to experience the pleasure of finding common ground with others.
Physician, psychiatrist, keynote speaker, and author Richard Gillett received his medical degree from Cambridge University, England, and is a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. His work is based on a lifelong personal and professional quest—what does it take for a human being to lead the best possible life, even if circumstances are rough? This quest took him all over the world—he has lived on four continents—and led him to settle in New York State in 1991, where he was granted residency as a “professional of extraordinary ability” before he naturalized as a U.S. citizen. He came to the understanding that much of our suffering is created by a common habit—divisiveness—a mindset that is relatively easy for us to change once we see how we’re doing it. He wrote the book: “It’s a Freakin’ Mess: How to thrive in divisive times.”