Dare You Take Someone Else’s Perspective?

Empathy as a mechanism for change in our increasingly contentious world.

Posted Sep 10, 2018

At Senator John McCain's funeral, former President George W. Bush slipped a piece of candy to former First Lady Michelle Obama and the Internet went wild. People were thrilled to see a Republican and a Democrat being friendly to one another. 

Why did sharing some candy—a fairly mundane act of generosity—come across as such a praiseworthy deed? Perhaps because we live in an era where self-righteousness and meanness to those with whom we disagree run rampant. In our politics, journalism, social media, and even our one-to-one interactions, people seem quicker than ever to dogmatically assert their views as right and to demean or tear down those holding contrary views by mocking them, hurling insults, and calling them names. It’s as if many of us have lost—or never fully developed—the ability to empathize. 

Empathy. It’s a word we hear a lot in psychology, so readily invoked that we often don’t bother to seriously think about what it is and what makes it powerful. Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centered therapy, saw empathy as one of the core conditions for psychological growth. Empathizing, according to Rogers, “means that for the time being, you lay aside your own views and values in order to enter another's world without prejudice.” (Rogers, 1980, p. 143

Imagine empathizing—rather than repudiating, attacking, demeaning, or mocking—those with whom we disagree? Of course, empathizing sounds easy, but it isn’t. Rogers was quick to point out that 

empathizing can only be done by persons who are secure enough in themselves that they know they will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other, and that they can comfortably return to their own world when they wish. (Rogers, 1980, p. 143)

Didius at Dutch Wikipedia
Carl Rogers
Source: Didius at Dutch Wikipedia

In other words, we can empathize with others even when we do not agree with them or share their world view. When approaching other people empathically, we try to look at the world through their eyes and to experience things as they do. Out of empathy comes understanding and the possibility for change and growth—both for us and those with whom we empathize.

Unfortunately, empathy seems to be in short supply in the public square these days. I suspect the Internet and social media—where it’s so easy to dehumanize others because they aren’t there in front of us as living, breathing human beings—is partly to blame. To log on to social media is to be bombarded by enflamed postings. As just one example, a friend of mine (who is typically kind, polite, and understanding in person) recently shared an article he disagreed with on Facebook, accompanied by a pithy comment to the article’s author that simply said “F--- YOU!” I’m guessing the conversation could go no further than that . . . short of drawing pistols at dawn.

Too often our self-righteous posturing in the absence of empathy leads to alienation, anger, and dysfunction. It’s extremely difficult for people—and the societies they form—to move in positive directions without basic levels of empathy and respect. Rogers knew this years ago when he not only showed us how empathy is a key ingredient of psychotherapy, but when he later tried using empathy in the political arena to enable adversaries to work towards understanding and cooperation.

Here’s a challenge. The next time you encounter a view to which you strongly object, see what happens if you try to listen to those espousing it from a desire to understand where they are coming from. Although you might have to forego a glorious put-down, rest assured that empathizing won’t mean having to tolerate or condone the views you’re trying to understand. Perhaps counterintuitively, you might even find that sincere empathy is the quickest route to change. 

Consider the story of filmmaker Deeya Khan, who, while making a documentary about the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, encountered Ken Parker, a KKK member. Rather than condemn Parker, Khan simply offered empathy and kindness—initially by providing him a drink when he experienced heat exhaustion during the rally and later by talking to him and trying to understand his experience. The result? Parker began to change, eventually renouncing his racist views. Parker powerfully described his relationship with Deeya:

She was completely respectful to me. . . . And so that kind of got me thinking: She’s a really nice lady. Just because she’s got darker skin and believes in a different god than the god I believe in, why am I hating these people?

That’s the power of empathy. It can simultaneously transform you and, at the same time, shift the conversation with those who you considered adversaries.

References

Rogers, C. R. (1980). A way of being. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.