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.
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.
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?