Sabona, the ancient Zulu wisdom of empathy

Alan White New

Alan White

Sabona, which means “I see you” is how the Zulu tribe say hello! It literally means that “I acknowledge your existence”. This is a powerful way to say hello. It says that I am able to see beyond your behaviour and I acknowledge the person you are behind it. A person is not their behaviour.

Behaviour is how we try to achieve our goals or get want we want. Sometimes we choose positive behaviours to achieve our goals. Such as training hard to be able to run a marathon, or studying hard to do well in exams. Other times we tend to use negative behaviour to try and fulfil our needs, such as sulking when we don’t get what we want or becoming aggressive to try and attempt to intimidate others into doing what we want.

No matter what behaviour we choose though, we are not our behaviour. Yes, our behaviour tells a lot about us but underneath our behaviour there is a person with hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties just like everyone else. One of the most empowering things I have learned over the past number of years is the ability to separate the person from their behaviour.

Very often our goals, or what we want cause conflict in our lives. Firstly they can cause internal conflicts within ourselves when we have two opposing goals. For example, I want to study hard to do well in my exams but I also want to play the sport I love or go out and have fun with friends. This type of conflict can cause us a lot of anxiety throughout our lives. I experience it regularly while trying to do the best I can in my teaching, while developing my next book and maintaining the important relationships in my life.

I also see this conflict in a lot of young people I meet every day. At least I have (now) experienced enough conflict to know that if I break down my goals into manageable parts that I will eventually get there. However for young people trying to cope with the demands of school, family, friends and hobbies, this can be overwhelming and cause a lot of suffering.

As part of any mental health programme in schools I believe that managing expectations of self and others must be a key part of the curriculum. We need to teach our young people how to survive in an ever more challenging world and allow them time to figure out for themselves, with guidance, how to manage all of the demands that are placed on their young shoulders.

We tend to overestimate what we can achieve in a day but underestimate what we can achieve in a week, a month or a year. And this inability to see how much we can do, if only we give ourselves enough time, is a key driver of stress in all our lives.

This brings me on to the second type of conflict we often experience and that is conflict with others. A quote I keep coming back to when writing about mental wellbeing is one of Dr William Glassers. “Good relationships are the core of mental health and happiness”. When we are in conflict, our relationships suffer and we often feel more anxious than usual. Try to remember the last time you had an argument with someone. Even if you feel you “won” the argument you probably didn’t feel good afterwards.

Conflict with others often occurs when two conflicting goals meet and the different parties involved in the conflict choose opposing behaviours to achieve the goal. For example, a parent wants a child to stay in and study, but the child want to go out and have fun. Or in a relationship one partner wants to do one thing and the other something else. The differing behaviours in such cases often clash and inevitably conflict occurs.

In this case we need to negotiate a compromise as the core relationship is the most important thing. To be able to do this we need to develop our empathy skills. This is the ability to see things from the other person’s perspective. This is not always easy and sometimes we will be able to do this and other times we won’t, but the important thing is that we try.

So, separating a person’s behaviour from the person is key to developing our wellbeing skills, because if we can do this we can understand the motivation behind someone’s behaviour and become more empathetic as to why they are behaving the way they are.

An interesting question to ask yourself when you see someone behaving in a certain way is to ask yourself, what are they trying to achieve or what do they want. Practice empathising with the person and see beyond the behaviour and it will benefit both your own and the important people in your life. And remember, Sabona, I acknowledge your existence, I see you as the person you are, not the behaviour you are choosing.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

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