Friday, February 1, 2013

Listening to the Other Side

I had a conversation the other day with a man who had a different opinion than I did on a hot-topic issue. The issue isn't important, it could have been gun control, or abortion, or whatever. What is important is that he was an intelligent, reasonable man with, as far as I can see, a full capacity for learning and understanding. Yet, he had come to a completely different conclusion about the 'right' way to do things. I found myself thinking, "I'm going to empathize with him, I'm going to try to see things his way." I truly listened to him and have not been able to stop thinking about him since.

After listening to this one man, I've seen both sides of the argument. I don't think this happens very often, in fact, so often I hear people arguing for 'their side' without ever really listening.

I see people putting up their side of this issue (for or against) in magazine articles or on the internet. Most of them, to me, are simply saying 'MY SIDE IS RIGHT AND YOUR SIDE IS WRONG'. This doesn't feel to me like it will bring us to a good conclusion. These statements don't encourage empathy. Instead, when I read those statements I feel that it puts a wall up between 'us' and 'them'. I see it as the exact opposite of building empathy. Here's an example of some of these kinds of statements:

I believe that the way to come together and truly listen to those we see as opposite (liberals and conservatives, meat eaters and vegans, religious and nonreligious) is for us to have empathy for the other person. I used to think that what was important was to give people the facts, or to listen to another person's facts. If we all knew all the facts, I reasoned, we would all come to the same conclusion. Now I realize that I was making the mistake of seeing people only for the conclusions they have reached and the facts they have at hand. Or I was only seeing their level of intelligence (if they don't get what I'm talking about it's because they aren't smart enough). I wasn't always thinking about their feelings, or trying to see the emotions they used when making their decisions. I don't think I was really listening to them the way that I should have.


In this country (the U.S.) we currently have certain rights under law. I believe that there is fear now, real fear on the part of some U.S. citizens that their rights will be taken away.

When I think about this man and his feelings, I remember his fear. It reminds me of the real fear I get inside when I think about someone taking away my rights, or the rights of women in general. The fear expressed by the gentleman I spoke to feels the same, to me, as my fears.

As Mark Ruffalo and Murray so eloquently put it, empathy is feeling what someone else is feeling.

Have you been able to 'see' someone else's side in a discussion, someone you thought you would never agree with?


judy said...

It is not just a question of needing empathy to understand other people's different views. It is often a question of very different culture and values. Without the same values and culture, one may learn (perhaps) to respect them as a person for having different views, but still not share the views or the feelings. The Red/Blue, Liberal/Conservative, Religious/Nonreligious, etc split is real, and based on much deeper differences than simple feelings (like fear) -- it is based on an entire different way if thinking about mankind, society, etc.

Take a look at Jonathan Haidt: His latest book is excellent. See a short description of his thought here:

Also look at George Lakoff's book: Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. An excerpt can be found here:

Janet said...

If I'm understanding you correctly, you are saying 'empathy isn't enough'?

judy said...

Let's agree to start that empathy is "feeling what someone else is feeling."

You ask if i think that empathy is not enough. Enough for WHAT? World peace? A functional Congress? Liking your neighbor? What is the goal?

Let's say it is to understand another's differing opinion/viewpoint. To understand why they have certain beliefs. To understand why they have certain values or hierarchy of values.

That requires listening to them explain it (if they can). BUT, If it is caused by an emotion (e.g., fear) that you DON'T feel about the issue, then you understand their position but don't empathize with them. You might sympathize with them, or feel compassion, or feel pity, or still think they are ignorant or stupid, or understand how their culture influenced them, but that is not empathy.

Do I think that I can empathize with a terrorist? or a religious person? or a bigot? No. I might be able to understand why, but that's not empathy. I might respect their right (in some cases) to be what they are, but never be able to empathize.

Perhaps we cannot empathize with everyone. Perhaps it is not even necessary. Depends what your goal is.

So let's change the definition to: "empathy is understanding HOW/WHY someone else is feeling or believing or acting." That requires what you did with the man -- listen with respect and think about what he thinks & feels, and why.

Great. But will that ALWAYS make you see both sides of the issue? Understand him? I don't think so. It may (in some cases) enable you to co-exist or compromise, although there are issues for which no amount if understanding helps.

judy said...

There seems to be two different parts of empathy (see below) - I gather that you are focused on affective rather than cognitive, or both?

“Empathy has two distinct components: cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to imagine someone else’s thoughts and feelings . . . Affective empathy is the drive to respond with an appropriate emotion to what someone is thinking or feeling. . . Low affective empathy is a necessary factor to explain human cruelty. . . [P]eople with autism and psychopaths are mirror opposites. The psychopath has good cognitive empathy, that’s how they can deceive, but they have reduced affective empathy. People with autism have intact affective empathy but struggle with cognitive empathy for neurological reasons.” Simon Baron Cohen

Janet said...

both - and thank you for adding another definition! I've seen several. Note I've got a post 'cognitive empathy' where I talk a bit about the definitions.

Here's a link:

judy said...

Thanks for the link to cognitive empathy; I missed that. So now, do I still think empathy is not enough?

Depends on your goal, but I still believe there are (and have personally experienced) situations in which all the best will, best listening, and even love and respect cannot bridge the gap in belief, value system and understanding between people.

So no, it helps tremendously, but is not enough.