Public Service Announcement: Empathy Matters

If there's one thing I've noticed this election cycle, and especially in the days following Election Day, it's a sorry lack of empathy on both sides.

As one segment of the nation grieves a loss they thought was a given and as another triumphs over a win they were told could never happen and as the people in the middle scratch their heads wondering what just happened, we're not any closer to healing the Grand Canyon this election ripped between us.

Unfortunately, everyone is too busy screaming into their own private echo chambers to hear the needs, the emotion, and even the pain of the other side. I don't get on Facebook often, but when I do the comments Republicans and Democrats lob at each other are horrifying. Namecalling, mudslinging, stereotyping.

Stop it. Just stop. Step back, realize there are real live humans on the other end of those tweets, Facebook posts, and comment sections. Try to understand where they are coming from and take a second to feel what they are feeling. Empathize.

If anyone gets the importance of empathy, it's writers. While not all writers are naturally empathetic (myself included), most at least know they need it when they write.

Writers not only need to understand the challenges their audience faces but also need to feel their audience's pain for themselves so they can be the solution. Today, as a writer, I'm going to try to help us all understand how to grow a little empathy in our own lives. Let's be each other's solution.

Listen.

I've read several articles since the election calling on everyone to stop and take a deep breath. Great advice. It just needs to go a little farther. After inhaling and exhaling a few times, shut up and listen.

This doesn't mean you can't have a voice, that you can never speak your mind, or that your opponent always has something to say that's worth listening to. But when you stop and hear and comprehend the other side, it's much easier to empathize.

I listened to a couple of TED talks over the weekend by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University Stern School of Business. One thing he said struck me (this is not verbatim, just the general idea):

In America, people on both ends of the political spectrum hate the opposite party as a whole. But when they get to know an individual from the opposing party, they realize that individual is actually human and has good reasons for why they believe what they believe or vote the way they vote. The problem is that we are so stuck listening to and hanging out with people just like us that the other side never becomes human - they remain the monsters we've created in our own mind.

Talk softer.

Sometimes a whisper is more resonant than a bellow.

When it's your turn to talk, don't scream at the top of your lungs. People stop listening when they sense aggression or hate.

If you have something important to say, first go find the facts that back up your beliefs (and please make sure they are facts, not internet rumors. Don't believe everything you read. When in doubt, Snopes), then present it in a calm and reasoned manner.

Oh, and don't do it on Facebook. Do it in person if you must do it all. Or if you really need to write it, start a blog. Facebook, Twitter, and the rest are too limited in nature to have true civil political conversations. Can we all make a vow to not talk politics on social media for a few years or, maybe, ever?

If you can't say something nice, don't say it at all.

Aristotle once said, or wait, was it Plato? Socrates? Oh that's right, it was Thumper. Thumper once said, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all."

Sure, Thumper is a rabbit. Sure, he's from a Disney movie. Sure, only kids watch Bambi. But we all need to hear this. Maybe over Thanksgiving, instead of watching the parade or the millions of football games, we should all watch Bambi in our post-gorging vegetative state. Because, people, the nasty needs to stop.

Take 30 seconds before you send that next vitriolic tweet to think about the people it's aimed at and realize you probably don't have the whole story.

Instead of mudslinging on Facebook, why not take a few minutes to call up people from the other side and ask them to meet up for coffee?

Get to know them. Talk to them. Ask them about their families, challenges they face at work, what motivates them. Hear their life story. Ask them how they got to where they are today.

After you've listened to them, do you really want to say what you were going to say? If so, say it to their face and not on a public platform.

Empathy matters.

Empathy may not entirely fix the political divides, and maybe it shouldn't. If we all held the same exact political views, we'd start to look like some sort of distorted utopia where freedom of speech and individualism are squashed. American democracy may be messy but it sure is beautiful.

Empathy doesn't look like changing your opinion. It doesn't mean you can't disagree with others. It doesn't mean the other person is always right (or that you are).

What it does look like is gracefully disagreeing. It means treating other humans like, crazily enough, humans. It means accepting that while you can't change someone else's opinion, it's socially acceptable to be friends with them.

Let's stop trying to get everyone else to look just like us and respect them for who they are.