“One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.” -Charles M. Blow
The original motto of the United States, proposed in 1776 and used for over 200 years was “E Pluribus Unum”… a Latin phrase meaning “One from many”. Not only did this motto signify the strength in deciding to form one nation from individual states, but it also held within it the reminder that we are truly united. There is not an action taken by one group of individuals that does not affect others.
From family get-togethers and social media feeds to the comment section of news articles there is currently one common theme that strongly negates our founding motto. Divisiveness. Whether we are observing the words spoken by our current commander in chief, or watching coworkers argue over their opinions surrounding Covid-19 health and safety precautions, divisiveness is everywhere. Posing the important question, how do we overcome such a state?
Where extreme division among groups of people exists, so does a lack of empathy and desire for understanding. With today’s technology and “click-bait” articles designed to create intense reaction instead of inform and encourage mindful contemplation, we are quick to defend our views and vilify the opposing. We’ve all seen ignorant and close-minded posts or heard close acquaintances say demeaning things that lack respect for another’s basic human rights. In recent NPR Hidden Brain episode, You 2.0: Empathy Gym, Stanford Psychologist Jamil Saki explains, “Oftentimes, when we encounter someone who’s different from ourselves and has an opinion or a viewpoint maybe that we even abhor, it’s easy to just view them as being either obtuse or dishonest or both… But that’s a mistake. I think empathy at a deep level is the understanding that someone else’s world is just as real as yours.” He also explored experiments that demonstrated our capability to be incredibly empathetic to those we consider to be within our own group, while overlooking opportunities to understand or help those in different groups, teams, or tribes.
This leads to the understanding that one simple practice has the power to unify our broken and divided nation… empathy. Not only empathy toward those within our own groups of beliefs, for that comes naturally, but actively and intentionally practicing empathy toward those with different backgrounds and belief systems. Sounds like a great idea in theory, but how do we do so without our blood boiling and immediately working to convince the other group of their wrongness?
- Work to extend your “tribe”. If you find yourself identifying strongly with your gender, religious or spiritual group, race, political affiliation or more… intentionally focus on inclusion. At a foundational level and as our original motto reminds us, we are all one and we must try our best to understand that our view is just that… only ours. How others are experiencing the world is as unique as your own life experience. While we cannot expect to fully understand the shaping of each person’s beliefs, we can do our best to empathize and remember that we are all a part of a bigger tribe, a larger community of human beings on this earth.
- Take a breath. Notice when you feel your intensity or disgust toward another group rising and pause to take ten deep breaths before acting or reacting. Remember that this person or group’s feelings are just as real as yours are so immediately rejecting or attempting to change theirs from a place of anger and frustration will be just as ineffective as their attempts would be in changing yours.
- Listen. Truly take the time to listen patiently without jumping to conclusions or judgement when hearing about the development of their beliefs. Gently encourage those with differing views to share what has shaped these belief systems and invite them to explore more deeply than simple acclimation to their family or friend group’s views.
- Allow your own views to be questioned and evolved as you gain new information. It is often looked upon as a negative quality, but the changing of beliefs as your grow deeper understanding of others and the world is something to be admired. If we all simply adopted the beliefs and views of those within our immediate family and friend groups, we would be refusing to acknowledge the growth potential that lies beyond. Remove your own blinders that prevent you from seeing the rest of the world with empathy and instead work to acquire new (verified and validated) information in order to continue shaping and evolving your own beliefs.
- Ask yourself, “Does this behavior align with my mission of spreading love and kindness?”. Do not allow yourself to stoop to the level of those engaging in behavior or discussion that is rooted in fear, hatred, and division. Instead allow yourself to be an example of love and kindness, intentionally choosing to combat the hatred and division with empathy.
“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” -Oprah Winfrey