Is Civil Discourse Out of Your Reach? LEAP FROG Part 2

Civil political discourse: If I try for it, will I be disappointed?

Is civil discourse a greased pig?

Again, I choose to believe that civil discourse is not only attainable — doable — it is vital for the future of our democracy. This quote from Margaret Wheatley, herself a former Peace Corps volunteer and now an organizational consultant, sums my thoughts up nicely.


Two weeks ago, in  L is for Listen in our continuing LEAP FROG series on Civil Discourse, we talked about the fundamental role that listening plays. This week, we move to empathy, another vital part of the puzzle that is civil discourse.

E is for Empathize

Ever wondered how empathetic you are?  Here’s a 28 question quiz, put out by something called The Greater Good, of Berkeley, CA. that claims it will tell you.  It pulls from three separate research studies on empathy to create this fairly quick quiz.

I took the quiz and while it tells me I’m actually quite empathetic (90 out of 110) I want to tell you that I’m not feeling very empathetic these days.

So today I’m writing about how to find empathy when we’re still feeling angry, sad, or fearful.  Like me.

Let’s start with a cartoon that made the rounds on Facebook back during the campaign. Pay attention to your first reaction.




Did you laugh?

I did when I first read that, for it summed up neat and tidy just what I envisioned those “others” to be. It helped me feel superior.

That’s a red flag, you know.  The way we demonize the other. Label them, categorize them, put them down.  I’m guilty; mea culpa.

Sit with this for a minute. For this really is at the core of our incivility, I believe.

And yet, as I write this particular LEAP FROG missive on civil discourse and prepare for my presentation in a few weeks, I’m aware that I’m the last person who should be doing this. I’m still in mourning.  Empathizing with those who have “caused” my distress is the last thing on my mind, never mind listening to them.  I lump them all together as the “other” and want to be as far away from them as I can get.  But then . . .

. . . I wonder if perhaps this task before me is a gift in some misaligned way the Universe has of working in my life.

So, rather than me telling you how to become more empathetic, I’m going to  bring you along as I tried out  the suggestions that came with my Empathy Test Score.

If you take the quiz, (here it is again) you’ll get the same five suggestions. Just click on the little + sign and you’ll get them without taking the quiz.


[learn_more caption=”If you would like to become more empathetic, here are some suggestions:”]


Practice active listening. Active listening involves approaching a conversation with a genuine desire to understand the other person’s feelings and perspective, without judgment or defensiveness. When you engage in active listening, you tune into what your conversation partner is saying without interrupting him or her, paying careful attention to their body language and facial expressions and periodically repeating back to them what you think they’re trying to say, to make sure you understand them accurately. Research suggests that practicing active listening can increase empathy and improve relationship satisfaction.


Share in other people’s joy. Empathy is not just about commiserating; it can also be experienced in response to positive emotions like happiness and pride. Research on “capitalization” suggests that empathy for positive events—such as expressing enthusiasm when someone shares good news—can be just as important for relationship well-being as empathy for negative events.


Look for commonalities with others. When interacting with people who at first glance seem to be different from you, look for sources of commonality and shared experience. Maybe you’re fans of the same sports team or both know what it’s like to lose a loved one. If nothing else, you can remind yourself that you are both members of the human species. Seeing your Shared Identity can help you overcome fear and distrust and promote empathy and cooperation.


Read fiction. Reading a great work of literature—or watching a film or play—allows us to temporarily step out of our own lives and fully immerse ourselves in another person’s experience. Indeed, research suggests that fiction readers are better attuned to the social and emotional lives of others.

Pay attention to faces. Facial expressions communicate a lot about a person’s emotional state. The Greater Good Science Center’s Emotional Intelligence Quiz can help you gauge your ability to read other people’s expressions, and it can be used to practice and improve your skills of emotion recognition.


For more empathy tips, check out the best research-based empathy practices, learn more about empathy, and read Roman Krznaric‘s “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.”



I tried them all; I did.  And I  didn’t get very far.

I began by practicing active listening. 

Active listening, for those who may have forgotten, involves listening in a way that ACTIVELY shows you are paying attention. This involves repeating back to them what they have just said, to be sure you have heard them correctly. It involves asking questions to clarify, and only to clarify. And it definitely involves keeping your mouth shut even though you have just come up with exactly how to solve whatever problem you’re both commiserating about.

Somewhere along the road, most of us have probably taken some workshop where we had to practice “active listening.” Let me remind you, it’s hard.  As I get older, it’s harder to remember what I said two minutes ago, never mind what someone else has said. And it’s still hard for me to refrain from fixing, from solving, from offering my finely honed advice.  But, I welcomed the challenge. I did. Really. Honest.

I began by practicing with my husband. Then, I followed that up with a colleague of mine. They both thought I had lost my marbles until I explained what it was I was trying to do.

“I’m practicing active listening,” I told them. “I’m trying to increase my ability to feel empathy.”

When they smiled oddly, I had to add, “I’m not doing very well, am I?”

These were easy conversations too. Give me a topic more contentious, and frankly, I don’t think I have the energy (yet) to engage with anyone challenging. But it was good to practice and, obviously, I could use a lot more. I will try it over the next few weeks.

I  can write endlessly on how I failed at the other suggestions, too. But in brief, reading fiction did not help. I stopped the steady dose of Holocaust memoirs I’d been reading the past few years, but then realized I was reading Holocaust fiction: City of Women, followed by Winter Men. Worse,  I picked up an old copy of George Orwell’s 1984. What was I thinking? I’m not reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Not yet.

Maybe some of  you can recommend some good escapism fiction. Roman Krznaric’s website offers an “Empathy Library,” that includes a list of books (fiction included) for stretching that empathy muscle. But I haven’t checked it out yet.

I failed miserably at the looking at faces step, too. I tried a few times, but time was the issue. You look at someone long enough and they sense it. They turn to look at you and wonder why you are “staring.” Plus, I couldn’t get out of my mind the social psych finding that when two people stare into each others eyes, it generally means they are either going to kiss each other or kill each other. I cared to do neither.

How do you  make eye contact? How long can you hold eye contact? Try it. It is such a classic cultural difference.

Roman Krznaric, the Australian political sociologist, offers a YouTube video that I found helpful. In the initial 16 minute section, he talks about how the 20th century was an “age of introspection,” of looking within for the answers, but how the 21st century must become an “age of altruspection,” looking outward, to the other. I’m not certain I spelled that correctly, but you get the idea.

In the video, Roman talks about empathy as a force for social change, how it can create a revolution in human relationships, and is at the core of any social movement.  Empathy was what powered the anti-slavery movement, he reminds us.

There’s also the video, Reimagining Empathy: The Transformative Nature of Empathy with Paul Parkin …

… where we hear that while we can’t stand in someone else’s shoes, we can try.

We can try.  Parkin tells us that communication that is inquisitive, nonjudgmental, validating and compassionate changes us. It softens us.  And, when we cultivate empathy, we enlarge our capacity to receive empathy.

Turns out, there’s a lot of work being done on empathy and I have just scratched the surface. But, the bottom line, for me, is that empathy, while something we are born with, must be exercised; it must be practiced if it is to become a useful way of life for us.  This is not a one-time deal.

Empathy is an emotional investment you make to be present with the
other’s experience; it involves compassion and curiosity. 

As we practice the art of conversation, share each others stories, we can find those points of commonality.  And it is empathy that will empower our movement to unite our country once again.

I believe this. BUT …

I am not there yet; I’m not ready. And I’m not going to judge myself over it, either. I’m just going to continue to learn how to develop the strategies that will be needed, and focus for the present on nurturing my own sanity and health. I’ll practice empathy in safe environments first.

I’ll exercise that empathy muscle until it comes back to life.

I’ll say more about this next week in A is for Assess. In the meantime, know that LEAP FROG works just as its name implies, because it happens over and over and over.

Can you identify one person you disagree with and schedule a time to sit together and have a conversation, a civil political discourse? What might keep you from doing such a thing? 

March 22: LEAP FROG continues, A is for Assess.
March 29: LEAP FROG, P is for Present (as a verb, not a noun)
April: What’s this FROG part?

26 Responses

  1. Sharon Lippincott
    | Reply

    I don’t know if I failed the empathy test or not. It would not give me a score. I did relate to the top comments on the suggestions page ─ the ones that pointed out that allowing ourselves to become, for example, overly affected by the moods of others, is an indication of poor boundaries.

    Perhaps respect is as big a part of this equation as empathy, and perhaps the two are inextricably entwined. Perhaps you’ll be getting into this soon ─ or maybe you already did. I share your memory challenge.

    Another point on this star (I’ll bet we can come up with five), is self-sorting. Don’t we all tend to hang around with people of like mind? And doesn’t this make it difficult to have civil discourse, because where do we find people we aren’t naturally civil with?

    R … I … P! Whatever that means. We’re being torn assunder? Rest In Peace?

    BTW, I had to chuckle at your reference to the active listening workshop. I used to teach those things. I’ve often wondered if they did the least bit of good, and the few times anyone used those reflective techniques with me outside a workshop, I felt like a bug under a microscope. I do believe we can listen actively, but to be effective, it must be organic, not formulaic.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I love how these posts are getting us both to think about things more deeply. RIP, indeed!

      I’m sorry you couldn’t get a score with the quiz. I just opened it again, and on my phone this time, and it worked fine. But I’d lost 3 empathy points!

  2. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I didn’t take the quiz, but I think I’m a fairly empathetic person. I think in this political situation, I can understand the people who feel “left out” and are suffering, and who thought–wrongly–that dt would help them. It’s more difficult to feel empathy for the right-wing haters.
    You probably have seen EJ Dionne’s recent piece where he says that those who want to resist dt need to empathize with that group of his supporters (not the right wing loonies, but the others) in order to persuade them.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks for the link, Merril. I’ve added it to my list of resources I’ll hand out at my talk in April. Nicholas Kristof and Charles Blow had a very interesting divergence of opinion in their columns a few weeks ago: Nick calling for dialogue and Charles saying “no way; yet.” Both attitudes to respect, I think. That cartoon I included two weeks ago was from Kristof’s column.

      The question becomes, for me: how do we tell the “loonies” from the rest. Who decides that? Seems to me we must also be able to hear the loonies. That’s where civil discourse meets its most important challenge.

  3. Frank V. Moore
    | Reply

    Took the test. “Submit” button did nothing — did not work. Was curious about my score because I think the stress of 2+ years of intensive/extensive caregiving may have made me less empathetic.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, you and Sharon both had trouble. Can’t explain it. All seems working fine. The page with the Score on it looks similar to the original quiz page. That might account for it. Or, maybe it was just down earlier this morning.

      I’ve heard how stressful Rose’s condition has been for you. And I’m sad to hear it, each time. Your comment, though, reminds me of the “use it or lose it” adage, which applies to that empathy muscle as well. That’s my challenge for the coming weeks, practicing empathy in small doses.

      Good luck. And do give Rose my best. She’s still got the best green thumb I know. (for our readers, Frank’s wife Rose took care of my plants when I went into Peace Corps. When we returned, they’d never looked better.)

  4. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    Haven’t taken the test because I know I’m an empath. However it does not hold for the current administration and its followers. You are such a wonderful writer, Janet, and have the ability to keep me constantly chuckling! Love it!!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Joan. I was wondering if someone might confuse the noun, empath, with the adjective, empathy. I’d be especially interested in how you fare on the empathy quiz, given your identity as an empath. I hope you’ll take it and let me know, Joan.

      Thank you so much for your support, for sharing my post this morning, and for your lovely compliment.

      • Sharon Lippincott
        | Reply

        Ah, Janet, as one wordsmith (word geek?) to another, empathy is also a noun, though in a different sense from empath. definition of empathy: the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. does not have an entry for empath, but the OED defines it thus: (chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual. Broadly speaking, and empath is a person well-endowed with empathy.

        Returning to for empathic, an adjective: of, relating to, or characterized by empathy, the psychological identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others.

        The adverbial form is empathically.

        And now we all know for sure.

        • Janet
          | Reply

          Of course empathy is a noun. I meant to write empathic. Going too fast and too late, I imagine. Thank you for keeping us on the straight and narrow. 🙂

          • Sharon Lippincott

            I was pretty sure you did know. I tend to get sucked in by little things like that and enjoyed the dictionary exercise to set the public record straight.

  5. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet – I think you hit it on the head that “demonizing” other people is at the heart of the problem. Objectification, or dehumanization, ultimately serves as a way for individuals, groups, and even entire nations to justify positions and rationalize (even despicable) behaviors. It’s done by individual serial killers and rapists, all the way up to entire nations during times of war. Put another way, it’s hard to drop bombs on fellow human beings’ heads, or to deny innocent children refuge, but it’s considerably easier when we allow ourselves to view them as something “other” or “less.”

    What’s hard for me, as someone coming from the left, is knowing just how much the right has engaged in precisely this sort of thing in recent times — objectifying Muslims, women, non-Christians, immigrants, refugees, people of color, and even liberals, themselves. It’s difficult to turn the other cheek. Not to mention, as much as I love the Obama’s mantra, “when they go low, we go high,” I can’t help but think to myself, “yeah, and look where it’s gotten us.” Civil discourse, like all effective communication, requires a willingness on both sides of the conversation to actively listen. When the other side is chanting “lock her up,” it seems kind of pointless.

    Having said that, that doesn’t represent everyone, and we need to be careful not to objectify Trump supporters in the same ways some have objectified us. Moreover, if we don’t find ways to start bridging the divisions between the two sides, our country will continue to be sick, regardless of the outcome of future elections; meaning, this topic is truly an important and timely subject.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you so much, Tim. You have captured and highlighted for me, what is so critical in knowing what part we ourselves play . And identifying something that we ourselves have the power to change. It seems to me you have the start of your next blog post here. Yes? I hope so.

      • Tim Fearnside
        | Reply

        Thanks, Janet :). Perhaps… I know I need to dust that thing off one of these days. Maybe it’ll happen soon…

    • Sharon Lippincott
      | Reply

      Tim, in 2006 the Arbinger Institute put out THE ANATOMY OF PEACE, a powerful book on this topic of one-upsmanship and better than/lesser than. I see they published a second edition last year, which I have not seen. They begin at the level of the individual. Once you read this book, you’ll never think the same way again. You’ll be aware when you’re doing it. I think that would be true even if you were resisting the truth in their message. While you will probably still retain elements of that sort of thinking, you will recognize your thoughts for what they are and be able to adjust accordingly.

      The Arbinger Institute is dedicated to achieving behavior change in organizations and individuals by changing mindset. Check them out at

      • Tim Fearnside
        | Reply

        Thanks, Sharon. That sounds really intriguing. I’ll definitely check it out!

  6. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Interesting and relevant post, Janet. I know I’m an empath ( confirmed when I took the quiz) and yet it has been a struggle to negotiate these polarized waters created by the current political realities and disappointments. I certainly appreciate the lengths and depths you go to explore an issue, including your own personal struggles with civil discourse. There’s no doubt that it takes a concerted effort for even highly empathic folks to approach matters in a balanced and open way. I’m with you, a work-on-progress. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Hi Kathy. I’m glad you picked up on the effort part. These conversations take effort and, I choose to believe, are worth it in the end. I believ the more empathy we can show, the more empathy we can show. Just keeps getting easier. That is my hope.

  7. Charmaine Martin
    | Reply

    With a score of 93, I guess I am pretty up there with the whole feeling thing, I do know my failings and actually listening is one of them, how many times have I picked up on the words I expect to hear and allowed them to choke the words I didnt even bother to hear in a conversation. I have a very dear friend who is a little “influenced” by the statements of others, without considering them. I had cause to bite my tongue at lunch with her when she mentioned that the little children in Syria were propaganda designed to make us feel sorry for them. I dont doubt there is some substance to the psychological “propaganda” , that has a need to reach our hearts as it were, I found myself becoming a little irritated however at the assumption that some how it was fake news ( that trendy thing) I realised that my irritation was because I know her very well and am aware of her prejudices, not that I think for a moment that they are overtly far right, more ill informed, the kind of mind that took Farages BREXIT bus poster of the millions of refugees flooding our borders intent on raping our women as factual. This brings me to two things. A) belief systems, nurtured and experienced, our unique survival manual that we live our subconscious lives by when we are not threatened. We now understand that this unique belief system is readily interchangeable with an other or a group collective when our survival is under threat, perhaps our inability to listen is because we do not feel as another does in that threatened state, we can not relate can not empathise with that ideology. B) There is much to be said of too much empathy, hyper empathy, whereby we allow anothers feelings to over ride our own and that can be detrimental to our decision making with regards to our life choices, ie hyper empathy is often a consideration of why people remain in bad or abusive relationships. So what I m trying to say is that , the ideal is the scales of balance, not the polarization maybe. Like you, I have not reached that place inside myself and find it incredibly difficult to compromise in some situations. I have found that my only coping mechanism in those situations is to say nothing, in the hope that my silence speaks for me. Absolutely not where I want to be.

    • Sharon Lippincott
      | Reply

      Charmaine, by coincidence, I’m currently reading SPONTANEOUS EVOLUTION: Our Positive Future (and a Way to Get There from Here) by Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman. The multi-layered book builds on Bruce’s research into epigenetics and the fallacy of believing genes control our destiny.The book is eight years old, but it’s so totally TODAY!

      They emphasize that children spend the first six years of life in lower brain state levels, gradually rising from theta (sleep or coma for adults), to delta (deep meditation or drowsiness or hypnosis for adults) to alpha (relaxed alertness and creativity, “flow state”) to beta (full-on conscious thought). During these early years before they have the ability to reason, children are “downloading” a sense of the world and how people and situations work. They are basically downloading subconscious attitudes, habits, and beliefs appropriate to their families and cultures.

      They contend that these subconscious routines stay with us pretty much for life unless something compelling intervenes. This message is consistent with what you’ve observed and experienced. Conscious decisions to change subconscious programs don’t work. This explains why people can get stuck in a position and why it’s so hard to get someone on the other side of the Great Divide to “see reason.”

      Lipton and Bhaerman do believe change is not only possible, but critical if we are to avoid a mass extinction of life on this planet. I have not yet gotten to the part about how to make it all work.

      The most hopeful part of the message is that communities, large and small — even nations and earth’s population — form cellular structures based on the collaborative community model of cells in our bodies. Our US culture right now is akin to a caterpillar entering the pupal state where cellular material melts into goo before imaginal (imaginAL, not imaginARY) cells take charge and reform the structure into a butterfly.

      Those who are horrified at the state of things but able to envision the other side of this meltdown are cultural imaginal cells. Hang tight. Sounds like we’re beginning to fulfill that role.

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        Hi Sharon, I loved the image of the “goo” before the butterfly emerges. Yucky goo, too. Thanks for that. No wonder I feel so icky lately. 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hey Charmaine. Welcome back. I resonated quite a bit with your B) point. I noticed when I took the empathy quiz that a few of the questions felt awfully close to codependency for my comfort, and felt like more of a dissolving of important boundaries than an ability to feel empathy for another. And, your last point, about staying silent reminded me of a poster that my band leader (I was a twirler) in high school (geeesh, that was a while back) had on his office wall: Don’t stand there looking stupid; open your mouth and remove all doubt. Why that has stayed with me all these years is beyond me.

  8. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Pity, sympathy, empathy, compassion—all different, all important (although I lean toward the empathy-compassion end of the scale).

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Love the continuum, Laurie. Thank you.

  9. […] LEAP FROG Part 2: E is for Empathize […]

  10. […] found so lacking in my country following the surprise election results. Facetiously entitled LEAPFROG, the E stood for […]

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