What if you could read other people’s minds?

The power of empathy

I know for myself how easy it is to assume things about other people with little or no evidence. They don’t say anything or they say something we don’t like and we make assumptions about who they are and what their faults and failings are. Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error, which basically means we judge ourselves by our motives, but others by their actions. So, for example, I see a father getting angry with his child and make a judgement that he must be a bad parent. However, when I do the same thing, I am just showing appropriate discipline to child who deserves what they are getting!

But what if you and I could actually read someone else’s mind and really know the challenges and problems they are battling with?

The 4 minute video above is from the Cleveland Clinic, a leading US clinic in Cleveland Ohio. There is no dialogue apart from the unspoken words of the different characters. It is simple, but powerful to watch.

The video was first brought to my attention by John Geater who is International Director of PRIME (an international network of professional healthcare educators, committed to integrating rigorous science and compassionate care for the whole person).

Below are John’s observations on the video. While he writes as a doctor, he makes some important universal insights about empathy and getting along side others in their suffering and pain. It is also a good reminder to me about my own attitude when I sit with a patient and/or their family or carer.

‘In a few minutes, we learn to think of the story behind the facial expression not only of patients but also of fellow team members. All too often, in the hectic world of medical care, we think only of the professional task in hand. But we can learn so much by just looking into the eyes of our patients and through the complex neurology of human empathy understand something of their situation in an instant – an instant that can save a great deal of misunderstanding in the subsequent consultation.

One great lesson someone taught me is that the two cardinal moments of a consultation are when a patient enters the room and when they leave it. I took it to heart. I stopped reading through the notes as Mrs Smith or Mr Jones came in, gesturing them to take a seat – instead I looked up as the door handle turned and greeted them with a smile– but most importantly I saw how they came in – anxious and hesitant or maybe embarrassed or maybe looking as if they had good news to share – or some deep sorrow. Such information helped so much the subsequent time together, and far from lengthening the time of many consultations actually reduced them. Then as the person stands up to leave the room, so often we are tempted to turn to the computer keyboard to type in the details – but take a moment to see how they leave – do they pause before turning the handle? do they look back wistfully? This usually meant they had something important to share that they had not revealed, or my advice had not satisfied them. A simple “is there something else?” could often put right in a few seconds something that would otherwise have caused hours of anxiety for the patient, a soured relationship and even a serious undisclosed symptom.’

Empathy is a vital skill to develop. It is the ability to comprehend accurately what another person is thinking and feeling. It is possible to learn empathy by simply being curious, being open to new information, and then allowing yourself to experience feelings that allow you to develop an accurate sense of what is going on inside others.

Empathy is not the same as sympathy. To be sympathetic is to take on the same feelings as another person. So when a friend experiences a major loss and you cry with them, that is sympathy. Sympathy is an appropriate response in many situations.

To empathise, on the other hand,  is to understand and recognise the feelings of someone else without having the same feelings. In many ways it is more powerful. The reason is it opens the door to allow you to provide tangible help and support to the suffering person.

A quote often attributed to the Greek philosopher Plato I think summarises this well when he says, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

What questions and thoughts does this short video raise for you?

What should you actually be doing next?

Apart from reading this!

While I’m afraid I can’t give you a specific answer to that question, you don’t need me to tell you that life can get incredibly busy. There has been an exponential increase in technology and so there are an almost infinite number of priorities pressing for our attention every moment of the day. thinking web pic It can be practically anything from emails to instant messaging and social media to the person who comes to you saying “Do you have a spare minute?” And you know its going to be a lot more than a minute!

Effective leaders understand that activity does not necessarily lead to accomplishment. It is not enough to be busy – the question is what are you being busy about? There are basically only three kinds of work that need to be done:

  • The work that was planned in advance.
  • The work that shows up with no warning in the moment.
  • The work involved in defining the work that needs to be done in the first place.


While the first two are fairly obvious, it is the third one that we tend to overlook. John Maxwell talks about this in terms of his 17th law of leadership, which is the law of priorities: Leaders understand activity is not necessarily accomplishment. Just because I planned to do something at 10am on Tuesday or something landed on my desk at that time, does not guarantee that is the best use of my time. But it can mean I appear very busy. When I say yes to something, at the same time there are a whole load of other things that I am then saying no to.

The danger is that when we are busy we tend to think that because we are busy then we are somehow achieving. However, as someone once said, if we haven’t thought about where we are going, then being busy just means we get to the wrong place faster! Prioritising means we are continually scanning to think ahead about what is important, what is coming up soon and how everything relates to our overall vision of what we want to become and where we want to go.

What I should actually be doing next is in fact a hugely complex and multi-faceted question. And I haven’t even added in other variables such as how much energy do I have in the moment and what kind of context am I in? For example can I handle the emotions involved with that phone call or  do I even have time for that call (having access to a phone is  less of an issue for most of us)?

Here are 3 questions to help you decide what you are going to do next:

1.What is actually required? To drill this down further, “What must I do that nobody can or should do for me? If I am doing something that is not necessary, then really I should eliminate it. (For more on this see here).

2. What gives the greatest return on my effort? Money mangers talk about return on investment, but this can equally apply to my         use of time. As I become clearer about what my strengths and weaknesses are  then it makes sense to devote more of my time at what I am best at (for more on the rationale for this see The Law of the Lid). Ideally leaders should get out of their comfort zone, but stay in their strength zone. According to John Maxwell, if something can be done 80% as well by somebody else then he will delegate it.

3.What brings the greatest reward? When I say that it need not necessarily be financial (although it could be, but often that is insufficient). The key issue is that life is too short not to do the things you love. When you do something you are genuinely interested in, then it will energise you and keep you passionate. It is passion that will provide the fuel in your life to keep going and not give up (See 7 Simple Ways You Can Develop Grit). There is a sweet spot at the intersection between what you are passionate about and what people around you desperately need.

So what are you going to do next? I hope this has helped you a little on your way. Do share your comments and thoughts.

Finding momentum in your life

A train when it is going fast enough and has sufficient momentum can knock down a concrete wall. That same train if it is stationary and has a one inch block in front of the driving wheel on the track will not be able to even start.

Thomas_the_tank_engineIn life with no momentum a one inch size problem can stop you. But with momentum you can make incredible progress and hardly notice that there was a problem there in the first place. Such is the power of momentum. John Maxwell’s 16th law of leadership says that momentum is a leader’s best friend. Why? Because many times it is the only thing that makes a difference between losing and winning. In other words, winning and momentum go together like losing and loss of momentum go together.

But what is momentum? Put most simply momentum is forward motion fuelled by a series of wins. When you have momentum on your side then , the future looks bright, obstacles appear small and troubles seem of little significance. But with no momentum even the simplest tasks can appear impossible.

In a strange way negative circumstances handled the right way can become the fertile soil for a burst of positive momentum. The reason? It is because the apparent problem so often is not the real problem. The problem is that you think the problem is a problem so the problem that isn’t really a problem becomes a problem! (You may have to read that a few times to get the meaning!) However, when there is clarity about the real issue then the energy and emotion that the negative experience produced can be harnessed to move forward. Or as Dan Sullivan puts it, “All those things that seem to oppose our goals are actually the raw material for achieving them.” It is rather like how a rocket needs to overcome the negative pull of the earth’s gravity to launch into space. More energy is spent in the first few minutes of lift-off, in the first few miles of travel, than is used over several days to travel the half of million miles to get to the moon.

Here are 4 truths about momentum:

Podcast #019: Baroness Caroline Cox

Not your average grandmother

Caroline Cox is a remarkable lady. 6 July 2016 is her 79th Birthday. She is mother to 2 sons and a daughter as well as grandmother to 10 children. But she is no ordinary grandmother who likes to sit at home knitting, baking cakes and watching television.

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 11.58.29She has been accused by some of being a secret agent because of her ability to enter countries whose oppressive governments are intent on keeping her out. Her work in protecting the rights of Muslim women from oppression through Sharia courts in the UK has bizarrely also led to her being called Islamophobic.

She was created a Life Peer in 1982 for her contributions to education and has served as a Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords from 1985 to 2005. Lady Cox now sits in the Lords as a crossbencher and is a frequent contributor to Lords debates on Sudan, India, Nigeria, Uganda, and Burma.

In 2003 she founded the relief organisation HART. Her humanitarian aid work has taken her on many missions to conflict zones, allowing her to obtain first hand evidence of the human rights violations and humanitarian needs. Areas travelled include the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh (where she has been so far  83 times); Sudan; Nigeria; Uganda; the Karen; Karenni; Shan and Chin peoples in the jungles of Burma; and communities suffering from conflict in Indonesia. She has also visited North Korea helping to promote Parliamentary initiatives and medical programmes. Additionally Caroline has been instrumental in helping to change the former Soviet Union policies for orphaned and abandoned children from institutional to foster family care.

In recognition of her work in the international humanitarian and human rights arenas she has received a huge number of awards. She had been awarded the Commander Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland; the prestigious Wilberforce Award; the International Mother Teresa Award from the All India Christian Council; the Mkhitar Gosh Medal conferred by the President of the Republic of Armenia; and the anniversary medal presented by Lech Walesa, the former President of Poland, at the 25th anniversary of the Polish Solidarity Movement. Lady Cox has also been awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and Honorary Doctorates by universities in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, the Russian Federation and Armenia.

Do join us on this podcast as we discuss with Baroness Cox her fascinating life:

  • The influence of her father , Robert McNeill Love, an internationally renown surgeon.
  • Her life long battle with shyness, depression and what she calls ‘faithless fearful dread’.
  • Her  40 year marriage to Dr Murray Newall Cox until his death in 1997. He was a renown psychiatrist who applied insights from Shakespeare to his forensic patients.
  • Her unexpected transition from nursing to sociology.
  • A 5 year crucible of fire in becoming a lecturer at the Polytechnic of North London in 1972 when it was infiltrated by Marxists and Communists.
  • The serialisation in 1975 of these experiences in ‘The Times’ newspaper by the journalist Bernard Levin of a book she co-authored called  ‘The Rape of Reason’. His description of the Polytechnic of North London at the time as “In All It’s Brutality, The Making Of An Intellectual Concentration Camp.”
  • Coming to the attention of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1982 to become a life peer in the House of Lords.
  • The important work she is currently doing in the UK to ensure that Muslim women are not discriminated against by Sharia courts.
  • Her remarkable journey of being a nurse and social scientist by intention and a baroness by astonishment.
  • Where she finds the courage and passion to show grit as well as be so determined and resilient.
  • Her message to those who look ahead to what to do in the second half of their lives.
  • How God looks no so much to our ability, but our availability.

For more on work with the suffering of vulnerable women in the UK who experience religiously-sanctioned gender discrimination do see the Equal and Free website here.

We will be discussing the work of HART in more detail in a future podcast, but you can find out more information here.

What reflections, comments and thoughts does Baroness Cox’s life raise for you?

7 simple ways you can develop grit

Finding the perseverance, passion and pluck to go from ordinary to extraordinary

Do you want to do something meaningful and make a significant difference with your life? If the answer is no then you can stop reading now.


If yes then whatever you want to do, you are going to need grit. You don’t need me to tell you that life can be incredibly tough and challenging at times. (For more on that see here).

The difference between those who find a way to not just survive, but actually go on to thrive and flourish has to do with grit. We have previously looked at what grit is and the need to have more grit.

We’ve also attempted to explain the difference grit can make. That’s all well and good. But how do you actually develop girt?

Here are 7 simple ways that the research in psychology says leads to grit. They are simple, but they are not simplistic :

The difference grit can make to you

Why do some people have the ability to persevere and reach their goals, while others flounder and just give up at the first hurdle? Or why is it that success in school so often correlates poorly with success and achievement in the world of work?

Popular opinion tends to say that such people who go on to achieve are just amazingly talented or even just ‘lucky’.

We tend to assume that people succeed in life because of their natural giftedness or talent, their social intelligence or qualifications. But it is no way near as straight forward as that. I can think of a number of people who are talented and can do well academically in school, but then when the challenges in life became greater or more varied have struggled enormously. I have to confess that I too am one of those people.

It would be more accurate to talk about those who do achieve as having ‘grit’. Here are some examples:

How can I find hope in my darkest days?

Overcoming faithless fearful dread

Hope is a complex word. And yet it is so vital to human existence. As someone once said:

“Human beings can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air…but only for one second without hope.”


We’ve previously looked at hope from a psychological and psychiatric perspective. But hope is so central to human existence that any understanding is incomplete without reference to our spiritual identity. Why? Because where else can we ultimately find hope in our darkest days?

In the world of Biblical theology, hope also refers to a confident expectation about the future. Here is how the 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon articulated hope:

“Don’t you know that day dawns after night, showers displace drought, and spring and summer follow winter? Then have hope! Hope forever, for God will not fail you!”

As the day follows night and as the seasons change, this is a reminder that whatever our current situation, good or bad, challenging or refreshing, it is only for a period of time. The difficulty comes when we feel we are at the bottom of the mountain looking up. Are we going to be there forever? Maybe we are in situations with no clear outcome or we feel fatigued and at the end of our resources. It feels hopeless and we feel exhausted, there is nothing else to give. For such times, George Matheson says:

“Waiting with hope is very difficult, but true patience is expressed when we must even wait for hope. I will have reached the point of greatest strength once I have learned to wait for hope.”

So often in my life I have found myself waking up with a dark cloud (I still do sometimes) – a sense of no hope about life and my situation. Maybe you have too. Its not as if there is something necessarily disastrously wrong. It’s just a sense of “faithless fearful dread” as Baroness Caroline Cox puts it. I have to remind myself that I need to learn to wait for hope to come. That is what builds grit and resilience. It comes through silence and solitude and eventually leads to spiritual maturity.

Biblical hope is way beyond wishful thinking that everything will just turn out fine or the way I want life to be. It is also more than believing a better future is possible and having the power to make it happen. Vaclav Havel writes:

Do you need hope today?

“Human beings can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air…but only for one second without hope.”
That anonymous statement puts a lot of importance to hope. But what exactly do we mean by the word hope?

Hope is a strange word in the English language. In every day conversation we use it to refer to something that may or may not happen. So we say things like “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow.” It may or may not rain tomorrow, but we are wanting it not to rain. Hence there is an uncertainty about the outcome and we ‘hope’ that there is one possible outcome over another.



Psychologists refer to hope as “expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about.”
In other words hope is more than wanting something to happen or be true, but actually thinking that it could happen or be true. The psychologist and researcher Shane Lopez has shown that hope in this way leads to a whole range of positive effects from better performance in school to more success in the workplace to greater happiness overall. According to Lopez, “When we’re excited about ‘what’s next,’ we invest more in our daily life, and we can see beyond current challenges.”

While many people struggle with hope in life, this form of hope can be learned and developed. According to Lopez, hopeful people share four core beliefs:

Podcast #018: Spiritual Maturity

When many people think of those who are religious, it seems to me they go to one of two extremes. Either  they think of someone who is arrogant and opinionated in their beliefs (especially to those who believe or think differently) or someone who is so nebulous and abstract in their thinking about God that they appear to accept anything and everything.

On this podcast interview my co-host Andrew Horton and I attempt to go beyond these stereotypes to something we call spiritual maturity.


We discuss what does a spiritually mature person look like in the most positive sense?

Whether you are of no faith or any faith tradition, do join us in this fascinating discussion.

Here is a taster of our discussion (but to really benefit you will have to listen to the full 33 minute conversation):

We define spiritual maturity in terms of:

  • Who am I becoming as a person?
  • How do I look at my weaknesses and failings?
  • What kind of person am I like to be around others?

We also unpack the following characteristics of spiritual maturity, or as Gordon Macdonald describes them, ‘deep people’:

  • Demonstrating a consistent loyalty to Jesus: His life, His teachings, His challenges.
  • Have a hunger to keep on growing in every aspect of their lives regardless of age.
  • Love to inspire and lead others to grow in their personal faith.
  • Are people you love to be with because they love life and seem to know the best ways to live it.

Gordon Macdonald describes much more than this, but we summarise with an observation from the theologian Chris Wright in his observation of the late John Stott (1921-2011), former minister of the church my family and I attend at All Souls Langham Place in London:

“There are (three) characteristics I have observed (in John Stott) that I will emulate for the rest of my life. The three are rigorous self-discipline, absolute humility, and a prayerful spirit. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that faithfulness to God is a combination of these three things.”

A helpful practical understanding of this from Chris Goswami is how prayer concerns how I relate to God; self-discipline is about how I relate to myself and humility is about how I should relate to others.

What questions and thoughts does this discussion raise for you?

You may also find of interest the following posts:

What Does A Spiritually Mature Person Look Like?

Spiritual Maturity

Podcast #007: Religion

Discovering Silence and Solitude

Why I Struggle With Religion


Do you need more grit?

Developing passion and perseverance for long term goals

Grit in common everyday language refers to the very small pieces of sand or stone found in air, food or water. In that context grit is an irritation. However, in psychology it is much more positive. In that case it relates to firmness of character or a tendency to keep going in spite of setbacks or failure. It is the tenacity to keep going no matter what. How much does grit matter in life? A lot.

The 6 minute TED talk below by Angela Duckworth opens up the question of how grit may well be the factor that distinguishes those who achieve and succeed in life with those who don’t.

We tend to assume that people succeed in life because of their natural giftedness or talent, their social intelligence or qualifications. But it is no way near as straight forward as that. I can think of a number of people who are talented and can do well academically in school, but then when the challenges in life became greater or more varied have struggled enormously. I have to confess that I too am one of those people.

Here is how Angela Duckworth in the video describes grit: