Teaching the brain to respect others

By Dr. Erik Steele,
Posted July 19, 2012, at 3 p.m.

Having once completely shaved a buck-naked ex-governor in preparation for his surgery, I can tell you politicians are not much different from the rest of us. That’s why I generally respect them. I also respect most government workers, Medicaid moms, lawyers, drug addicts, alcoholics and my critics (who are often not very sensitive to my tender feelings).

You might think that’s because my standards for respecting people are way too low, but — respectfully — you’d be wrong. I feel that way about most people because I work at it, every darn day and really darn hard. If I didn’t, I’d walk around thinking I was surrounded by idiots, confident in no one, angry at everyone and so ornery I might just as well have a permanent wedgie. It would be more difficult for me to like the people with whom I work (including my patients), and more difficult to get that work done. I’d spend more time fighting than being effective.

We tend to think of respect for people as something you have or don’t have, based on what you think of the person in front of you. In this simple model, you either respect them or you don’t, and over the arc of your relationships you are the type who treats just about everyone with respect, or you are not.

Actually, respect is more complex than that. There are specific actions that make it easier to find respect for others, specific mental activities and exercises that change how your brain works. If you take those actions, you are more likely to develop and maintain respect for others through difficult issues, difficult encounters and for people you might otherwise cast aside as completely unworthy of oxygen, never mind your respect.

One such action is to consciously resist the brain’s instinct to quickly categorize those who disagree with us, or look different from us, in a negative and one-dimensional way. Our brains want to do that and are wired to do so using some of the same processes that help it rapidly identify threats in our environment. Take a quick look at someone on the street and watch your brain not only categorize them based simply on appearance, but attach visceral emotional or judgmental responses. If that person is bearded, pierced, tattooed and shabbily dressed, most of us register a different immediate impression than if he looks like we do, like “one of us,” for example.

If we are to resist that process we need intellectually shoulder aside initial impressions, then engage the brain’s higher functions of listening, learning and seeking to understand. We must look past the differences, actively search for what we have in common with those who seem different, and then (this is the really tough one) try to relate and find cause for respect. We must reframe issues — look at them from perspectives that are less emotionally laden so we can be more analytic, less reactive, less judgmental, more thoughtful and then more open-minded. And so on.

For some of us, such tactics of respect development seem almost instinctive or have been learned and developed since birth. For others, these tools and tactics must be learned later, then honed with repeated practice. Most of us, however, need to work harder at liking the people around us, and then to find the benefits in improved effectiveness, better relationships and less unhappiness with the other six billion people on the planet.

Erik Steele, a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

 

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/07/19/health/teaching-the-brain-to-respect-others/ printed on December 21, 2014