Saturday, August 6, 2016

Empathy and Communication: The Dynamic Duo

After fully identifying the specifics of what you hate (as discussed in the previous post), you are ready to move into the next two steps. Time to develop an us-us approach.

This requires you to empathize with others, even those you have no sympathy for. The dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.” This goes deeper than sympathy, which acknowledges the other person’s pain and, perhaps, even providing comfort. With empathy you acknowledge the other person’s pain because you have experienced similar feelings or can put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

With an “Us and Them” perspective you can only sympathize because you are separating yourself, your experience from the other. With an “Us-Us” perspective you are acknowledging the connection to another at a personal level. Only when you can do this can you fully understand the other.

Before I retired I was a sex-offender therapist in the prison system. Many people couldn’t understand how I could possibly work with such “monsters.” And if I saw them as “monsters” there would have been no way I could have made a difference. I’d have believed that once a monster, always a monster and therapy couldn’t change anything. I had to be able to see them as human beings with much in common with the rest of us. They have feelings, strengths, weaknesses, dreams, and goals. They are not “bad through and through”, as someone put it.

When I got to know them as human beings and learned their stories, their histories, their failures and successes I could relate to them on a “us-us” level. That didn’t mean I had been a sex offender or that I condoned any of what they had done. But I could understand how they got to that point and I could work with them to make the changes they needed to make in order to live healthier and happier lives. They had a lot of work to do to change their thoughts and beliefs in order to make better choices. The hardest of which, for some, was developing empathy. Because as long as they didn’t recognize the harm they had done to their victims they really didn’t have any desire to change. Developing empathy helped them acknowledge the pain they had caused in others and led them to feel remorse. Only then were they motivated to do the hard work necessary to change.

With major conflicts between countries, or groups of people, if there is no empathy they can believe that the “other” is less than human and their hate can turn quickly to violence without feeling any regret for the atrocities they commit. The Germans thought the Jews were less than human, or at least a lower form of human. Their treatment of the people in the concentration camps was unimaginably atrocious. One religion defines another as evil and they are then free to destroy them with pride. One group of people demonizes another group of people because they are different in some way and can then violently attack them. Some of the crimes against blacks in America are only possible if you refuse to acknowledge the pain they cause.

As long as we choose to separate from others who are different we can avoid acknowledging the pain caused by our hate.

When we choose to see others as equals as humans, as long as we acknowledge that we have similar feelings and flaws, we can then successfully communicate. Communication requires that understanding we listen. By listening we can learn what the other is thinking and feeling and when we can identify what is really going on. We can communicate the specific reasons we feel angry or threatened and can begin to dissipate negative emotions. We can discuss the issues more rationally. We have a better chance of reaching a good compromise, finding win-win solutions,  and curb the feelings of hate and fear. If we talk about our hate only using the generalizations and stereotypes the anger can intensify and the hatred becomes inflamed. This is the effect of “hate speech”, the name-calling and demonization of the “other.”

We can see this played out in the media these days. One side calling the other insulting names and avoiding any rational discussion. There seems to be no room for compromise or even real exploration of the specifics of what they hate, beyond the labels and stereotypes. So, of course, the hate gets bigger and violence erupts.

Attending to these two steps – empathy and communication – can go a long way in curbing hate in the individual and personal level and on the national and public level.

What are some examples of how you have used these two steps to improve relationships?

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