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Bridging Our National Divide Demands Empathy and Compassion

Solving problems facing our nation requires empathy and emotional intelligence

The 2016 presidential election results demonstrate that many Americans have lost trust in a government which has failed to address their issues and difficulties because of a lack of understanding of their feelings and perspectives.

Donald Trump, a political outsider, expressed an awareness and understanding in a manner which deeply resonated with many, who thereby believe that “Trump speaks the truth.”

Meanwhile, on October 13, 2016, I attended a program at UCLA titled "Why History Matters—Historians And Others (Try To) Make Sense Of The 2016 Election." All five panelists and the moderator agreed that Trump is a demagogue.

A demagogue is “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.”

According to the panelists, the circumstances ripe for demagogues are loss of a war, national embarrassment, economic depressions, great recessions, income inequality, and the like. Demagogues come up with simple solutions for very complex issues and appeal to those who feel as though they are the "losers" with regard to the status quo.

Regardless of whether you agree that Trump is a demagogue, “the truth” he speaks has caused many Americans to feel like outsiders in their own country.

Unfortunately, “appealing to popular desires and prejudices” will not solve the problems of those Americans who voted for him and will further polarize our nation.

Interestingly enough, earlier this year, Dr. Lynne Reeder, Director of Australia21, “a not for profit public think tank specializing in promoting new evidence-based thinking about the big issues confronting Australia in a rapidly changing global environment” conducted a pilot study testing the effectiveness of empathy conversations as a policy-making instrument.

The study states as follows:

In today’s global and uncertain world, it could be argued that policy challenges require an ability to become more aware and sensitive to the suffering of others. For that to happen, empathy and compassion need to be intentionally included and rewarded in policy and decision making settings. However, moving towards suffering requires a high level of emotional intelligence and an ability to better understand how our thoughts influence our capacity to connect with others.”

The study queried, “Why is it beneficial to demonstrate that empathy conversations could provide another resource for policy makers?"

I am proud to state that the conclusion I reached in my article “The Power of Empathy” was used to answer that question, which was phrased in the study as follows:

We posit that they are worthwhile considering because using empathy conversations as a considered policy tool will deliver direct access to a range of diverse lived experiences to those in policy making positions; and that in turn provides enhanced information on which to base fully considered decisions. It is not surprising that our limited worldviews, based on our particular life experiences, inform our expectations and assumptions. If those in policy positions have not been a member of a discriminated or minority group, and mostly they are not, then what personal relationships have shaped their life processes? Consequently empathy conversations may provide one way of cultivating the awareness and understanding of the lived-experiences of individuals in financial difficulty, by those developing welfare policy who have not directly experienced poverty or austerity themselves.”

It bears mentioning that our government can rebuild lost trust and do so in a manner that is not at the expense of others.

Consider the following excerpt from the study and how it relates to the increased polarization that occurred during our presidential campaign:

Conversations are based in language and therefore the words we use to describe human interactions are highly significant, particularly in the ways in which we conceive of ourselves and others, e.g. think descriptions such as ‘illegals’ versus ‘refugees’. The terms we use to describe others have been proven to make a significant difference in how we relate to them. A recent study showed there was a major variance in the perceptions of the participants when using ‘person first’ language. The findings of this particular study noticed that the participants who received information using the term ‘the mentally ill’ displayed lower levels of tolerance than those who received information using the term ‘people with a mental illness’. Awareness of our biases and assumptions inherent in our interactions is an important component of empathy in conversation.”

As set forth in the Study, “In order to make what cultural thinker Dr. Roman Krznaric calls the ‘imaginative leap of empathy’ – we need first to learn to ‘humanize the other’, so as to discover what we share and what we don’t with others.”

The pilot study involved interactions between two groups of participants with significant differences in their lived experiences, including “financial wealth, organizational influence, and educational attainment…. All participants were provided with training and background materials to support them in connecting with, not judging the other…. In the project conversations held in this pilot it appeared that the participants were able to ‘humanize’ each other, by discovering what they shared in common…. Therefore this multi-disciplinary pilot suggests that guided empathy conversations can assist in bringing those with ‘unlike’ lived experiences into a shared connection and common experience of humanity within a policy setting.”

Needless to say, I could not agree more with Dr. Reeder that the findings made in this pilot study “would also be of interest internationally.”

As far as her use of my conclusion in the study was concerned, Dr. Reeder told me the following, “I thought the point you made in your article was such an important one— particularly in the application of empathy and compassion to the sort of ‘real world’ challenges you are dealing with. Well done on your work also—I’m sure your clients must appreciate the perspective you take in dealing with them at difficult times.”