Monday, December 21, 2015

Using empathy is like riding a bicycle

I can ride a bicycle, although it's been many years since I've actually done so. Let's say I'm walking through the park and I see a bicycle lying abandoned on the ground. What are my choices?

I could start by not noticing the bike at all, because I'm thinking about something else.  I could see the bike, pick it up and zip away. Or maybe I'll see it but I won't pick it up; I could hesitate because I'm scared that I'll fall and get hurt. Maybe I'm feeling tired and don't want to ride just then. Or maybe I'll want to be mean; I'll think about pushing it into a lake, or putting holes in the tires. All of these are choices I can make with that bike - to ride it, to ignore it, to break it. Having the skill to ride has given me more options, but doesn't stop me from doing those other things. I have to make a choice.


I lead an isolated life. I live and work at home, and don't get out much. So when I finally do get out and see people, I slip easily into judging them. I haven't practiced, so again and again I see the bicycle (of empathy) and I choose to not ride it.

Today, for instance, I see a group of women sitting at a table. I overhear them talking and think, "Look at those women over there, wearing pink jumpsuits, talking about how droopy their flesh on their arms looks and reminiscing about old episodes of Blossom. They look like they are having fun, but why do they have to play into those stereotypes of women? Those women are horrible."

Then I remember that I'm the person who wants to try to connect with everyone. I'm trying to understand everyone's point of view. So I think; what if I was sitting with them? Would I be joining their conversation? If we were friends, would I be sneering at them? Probably not. I'd probably be smiling and laughing, just like the others. I'd join in and ask, "How did we ever think Joey was cute (whoa!)."


Instead of "Growing Empathy" maybe a better name for this blog would have been, "How I try to use and grow my own capacity to empathize with others, and make the effort to use it as often as possible." Although, that would have been a bit long for a Google search. :)

I still believe that empathy is an emotional investment that we can choose to make. I want to learn to have empathy, but also to choose to use it as often as possible, and not to fall so easily into the trap of judgement.

It's time to go ride a bike. Want to join me?


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The right way to do a job - trying to build empathy for Kim Davis

I know that having empathy for a person and agreeing with a person are different. If I disagree with someone, though, it's hard to build empathy for them.

As an example, right now, if you and I were to run into each other at the grocery store we might start talking about the news. We might discuss Kim Davis, elected County Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, and how she went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to couples. Ms. Davis has said that she did it because it's now legal to marry in the U.S. if you are gay, and that issuing licenses to gay couples conflicts with her religion.

I believe strongly that civil marriage should be legal between any two people regardless of their sexual orientation, and so I celebrated when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of this. As a result, I firmly agree with the local Kentucky residents who want to get married. I feel frustration for the men and women who were trying to get married and couldn't get licenses until Ms. Davis went to jail a few days ago.

I feel anger at this woman. I think, why is she choosing to use her position of power to cause disruption in the lives of these people?


I also believe strongly in keeping my ethics and my work tied together. I had a summer job teaching at a local college many years ago, for Calculus III. This was a difficult class for undergrads; and it was made more difficult because of the intense schedule (we were meeting for 3 hours a day, 3 days a week for 6 weeks). It didn't surprise me that many of the students were unable to learn the subject that quickly, and out of a class of 12; 4 of them were failing out. I was in my office grading papers one day, when there was a knock at the door. I was expecting a student, so was surprised to see an older man I didn't know walk in.

He introduced himself as the Dean of the Chemistry department. He then said that one of my failing students was trying to graduate, and that all they needed was this one class. Could I see any way that they could pass? I told him that, at this point, it would be really hard; they had already failed every weekly test, and the midterm exam, with grades below 50 percent. I said, "If they turn themselves around and get a high score on the final exam, they can pass. " He then asked me, "Could you pass them anyway, even if they fail the final?"

I was floored that he asked me to do this. I looked at him, and repeated, "Only if they get a high score on the final exam." He looked at me and said, "I know you'll do the right thing. Think about it, and when it comes time to submit grades, pass him. " Then he shook my hand and walked out. After he left I sat there for a few minutes; not sure of what to do.

This was horrible! My job is to teach students, and the grades are supposed to reflect that they've learned or not learned the material. I had heard about students trading favors for grades, and I had caught students cheating. This was completely different; this was one teacher asking another to change a student's grade! I was mortified that he would ask; but I wasn't sure what I could do. I thought, well, he's a Dean and I'm just an adjunct professor, I'm pretty sure I have to do what he tells me to do. Also, although this was a summer job I thought I was going to end up teaching for the rest of my life. I was hoping to get a letter of recommendation from this school, and I was worried about what would happen if I did flunk the student. Then I thought, let me see how this kid does on his final exam. I don't need to decide until then.

In the end, the student got only one question right out of ten on the final exam, and I needed to fail him. I decided that it wouldn't be right not to, it wouldn't be fair to the other kids who worked harder to earn their grade. I remember the strong feeling of decisiveness that came over me as I entered his grade and handed it in.

After I submitted the grades, I went to the Dean of the Math Department (my boss) and told him what had happened. He agreed that it was improper, but he didn't say to me if he was going to alert anyone else. I didn't ask for the recommendation letter. Since I didn't end up going into a teaching career, I've never heard from any of them again.

It felt really good standing up for what I felt was right, and doing my job the way I thought it ought to be done.


I know that teaching a class is very different from being elected Deputy Clerk of a County; but in many ways they are similar. We're both acting based on what we know and believe to be the right way of doing things; and we're both in positions of power; we're making decisions that affect other people's lives.

So when I think about Ms. Kim Davis, I think that her job is to issue marriage licenses, and to determine who is eligible for a license. If I was in her position, I can imagine that maybe she doesn't agree with her bosses definition of eligible (in this case, the government's definition). If I was her, maybe I wouldn't issue a license until I thought about what I was doing, and decided if I agreed or disagreed with it. Maybe I would be trying to talk to my boss, in this case, the government and the people who elected me. Maybe I would be talking with others, friends and family, to see what they would do.

I disagree with her, and I have empathy for her.


Friday, August 21, 2015

A day at the doctor's office

I got a call the other day, telling me I needed to come in for an annual woman's checkup. Since my regular nurse-midwife wasn't there this week, they asked if I'd be okay with seeing one of the other doctors in the office.

I didn't recognize the name. I asked, "Why am I coming in, I don't need a pap, right?" They confirmed that I didn't need a pap, just a standard visit this time. This was a relief since the pap is an invasive and uncomfortable test, and I'd rather not have some stranger doing it to me. So I agreed to see Dr. Lava*.


At the doctor's office I did the usual dance of filling out forms and handing over identification. I went to go to the bathroom, but it was occupied, so I waited. A person came out and I looked up, she stepped one way, I stepped the other and we pretty much crashed into each other. She was tall, a black woman with a round face, her hair in a bun and wearing red nurse's scrubs. She's squishy, I thought, and I had an odd urge to hug her as we tangled. We laughed, I apologized, she smiled and said, "It's okay" and then I went back to the waiting area.

A few minutes later, I was called in by the very same nurse I had just encountered. This was great, because our earlier run-in made it easy to slide into some friendly chatting. We talked about the weather, she introduced herself as Sheila, she asked me the standard questions. She had just started to pull out the blood pressure cuff when we were interrupted by a knock on the door.

A woman I didn't know poked her head inside. She said to us both in an educational tone, "Hi, Sheila's new, so I'm here to make sure that everything's covered." She didn't introduce herself, just came in and closed the door, then leaned against the wall. Whatever kind of relaxed atmosphere that the nurse and I had been building was now stopped in it's tracks because her supervisor was present. The room got very quiet. Sheila had finished the pre-exam steps and was about to leave when the second nurse told me to get undressed and prepare for my exam.

"But...I'm not getting a pap? What do you mean?" I looked at all of the tools laid out on the counter and thought, are those for me?

"No, you aren't having a pap." She said. "But you still get a pelvic exam. It's part of your checkup."

Then they both left.

I had a few minutes to change into my gown and absorb this new information before the doctor came in. Great, that's unexpected, I thought. Now someone I don't know will be poking around my private bits. Fun-fun-fun, I just hope it's over really quickly.


Dr. Lava came in. She was a tall woman with dark hair and an uncertain smile that didn't seem to reach her eyes.

She held out her hand and said, "Hi, I'm Dr. Lava, I haven't seen you in a long time." "Um, really?", I said, "Because I don't remember you at all." She insisted that we had met before, a few years ago. I said, "Um, okay." Why are we arguing? Then she asked me to lie down to start the exam.

To clearly paint the picture; I'm wearing a paper gown that opens in the front, held together with ties. So I'm nearly naked, cold in the office air-conditioning and flat on my back on a table about waist-high.

Then there was another rat-a-tat knock on the door, and Sheila came in.  She left the door open behind her as she went to the computer. I'm seeing that door open and I'm thinking, I'm barely covered over here, what's going on, when is she going to close that door? I was about to say something when the mystery-nurse came in and shut it behind her with a snap.

I was a little unhappy before, but now I was really squirming. I was remembering now about another time, during my first childbirth experience at a hospital. Then, a large group of nurses and staff came in to watch the big event; live and up-close. I thought, hey, doctor, I'm not some kind of a circus sideshow to be gawked at, I was a person.

I was vulnerable and a little scared now; with all these feelings and memories running around my head. I made a joke to try to break my own tension, saying, "No, no please, invite some more people in, ha ha."  I started babbling, I think I was talking about my time in the hospital. As far as I could tell, no one was listening to me, or if they did they didn't care, because they didn't say anything.

And that was it. The doctor did her exam, and I was out of there in a few minutes.

I walked out the door relieved that it was over, and feeling like I don't ever want to go back. I don't want to see that doctor again. Next time I'll make a different choice.


I've had many good, positive experiences with doctors and nurse-midwives over the last ten years. The great ones talk with me, they listen to me. They spend time to build a relationship with me. They treat me like a person, using empathy to build a better connection. This wasn't one of those times, and the lack of empathy in the experience was palpable.

How have your doctor experiences been lately?

If you are a doctor, please tell us about your experiences. Were you trained in empathy, do you see benefits (or lack of benefits) in doing your job?


*As usual, all names have been changed. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

...tis a gathering

I'm very excited for today. I've got my friends coming over for a play date.

When I was a kid we didn't make play dates; there was no point because I would see and talk to my friends every single day. I would go to school and there they were, in my classes or in the hallways. We would have lunch together. We would leave school at the same time and, because I couldn't bear to spend another second apart from them I would stay after school and hang out on the street talking to them some more, until the very last absolute second when I had to leave. I would walk out of my door and enter the world of 'with friends' and not leave it until the second I pulled out my keys to unlock my door again and was home. I love thinking about this time in my life; because I was completely part of a group. I belonged to a group of people who cared about me and wanted me around as much as I wanted to be with them.


Yeah, good times.

I remember being a kid and thinking about what it would be like to have a job and be all grown up; I thought I would be simply doing an exchange. I was trading 'school time' for 'job time'. Both required me to be at a fixed place doing fixed things for periods of time every day, so I didn't see a difference.

In my case, the difference was that I didn't stay in my old neighborhood. So for me to see those old friends now takes a whole lot of effort, coordination, patience, and some last minute phone calls and text messaging.

But it's totally worth it to see my friends again. It feels like this.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Empathy is a tool, and tools are used to fix things. What does empathy fix?

Empathy is not the solution to all problems. It's not a master key or a bandage for all wounds or a fix-it tool that repairs all relationships and will bring about world peace. And yet

Empathy is clearly a motivator.

If you see the humanity in others who are suffering, then you are more likely to reach out and lend them a hand.

If you see that the person you disagree with as a reasonable, rational human being, then you will be motivated to find a solution that benefits both of you.

If you are hurting, perhaps practicing empathy will allow you to see the humanity in others. You will know, from your practice, that those around you have also been hurt. You will feel less alone. You may even be motivated to reach out to them for help.

Empathy will help me do my job better. If I have co-workers or employees, empathy is going to help me get along better with them, which makes for a better working environment, which makes for more productive employees and a better business model. If I am self-employed, empathy will help me to connect with my customers and perhaps see better ways to deliver my product or services.

Empathy is a tool that helps us overcome our internal obstacles. I may want to be kind others; and empathy helps motivate me to do it. I go back to my original thought of so long ago; it may be wrong for me to want to help one person who's standing in front of me, over thousands that really need help. But if I'm choosing between helping one and helping none - I choose to help one.

What drives you?


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Driving with empathy

By their nature, cars impede empathy.

Which is good, because when we're driving we need to be able to focus on the road and the cars and the signs and the traffic. We can't spend our time communicating and reaching out, we have to be isolated in our cars, separated from the world and flying down highways at amazing speeds in a little metal box.

I've heard about the new self-driving cars and trucks being tested and I'm all for them. I think we should be able to stop worrying about protecting our lives while we drive, and get back to the incredibly difficult task of living our lives and being people.


I'm going to get a little Luddite here; I think that driving is the most unnatural thing we do as humans and we should find a better way to do it. Perhaps it's the lonely nature of a ritual commute or the fact that it's wholly unlike anything our early human ancestors would have ever done, but it doesn't feel like it's what we should be spending hours or days or weeks of our life doing.

The closest 'natural' experience I have to driving is walking. I imagine that I'm strolling down a street, keeping a certain distance from the people around me. Other people are moving too, but they are moving at close to the same speed as me, so it doesn't look like we're all moving very fast. My instincts tell me this is a reasonably safe thing to do, because it is. When I'm walking there's little chance that bumping into another person will result in my immediate death or harm.


Driving feels like walking, but it's also such an inhuman experience. We don't see and understand the stresses of our fellow drivers, we don't have their faces to interpret. We don't talk to them and they don't listen (well, maybe we do but they don't hear us). Perhaps that's what makes it feel so unnatural.

There are some people who are inventing ways to better communicate while driving (see the Wiper Wave). I wondered if there were other great ideas out there for a special invention or 'empathy system', so I asked my Facebook friends for help.

I did get some responses;  such as "Front and back lights display one word messages that can be voice activated by driver" or the "Apology sign.". These types of responses are like the Wiper Wave, because they are about expressing ourselves ('talking') while we drive. One person even wanted telepathy, the ultimate communication!

Talking is a two-way street, though, and someone has to listen. One of my friends said that we don't need a better way of communicating at all; instead, we need to all pay more attention to the signals we're already sending and receiving; such as lights and hand gestures. I'm not sure I agree; but it does tell me that we're not treating each other like people on the roads.

Unlike a nice saunter down an avenue, driving (especially commuting) is very dull. I'm just completely done with the same roads and the same cars and the same highway signs. Sure, when the seasons change it gets a little more interesting but it's still tedious. Getting bored is apparently a common thing, and more importantly, when we get bored we stop paying attention to anything and people get hurt. (See bored,  bored and bored).


I imagine a future where I enter a road on my regular commute, and my car (all by itself) locks into place directly next to someone else's car. I'm not driving anymore, I'm riding. So maybe I'll relax, make a few calls and talk to my friends or family. Maybe I'll be working already, talking with someone over a computer screen or finishing up a project with my team. Or maybe I'll strike up a conversation with Sonia, the girl in the car next to mine.



tldr: Self-driving cars will be great, because then we won't be bored and we'll start talking to each other again.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Unwanted connections - A story (trigger warning)

I think it's pretty clear that in our society, we are not allowed to touch each other without permission.

I wish the event I'm going to tell you about hadn't happened. I wish I was telling you a story about a great time at the roller rink with my family. Instead, I'm asking you to think about what gives a guy the idea it's okay to grab someone he doesn't know. I should just accept it, since this is the culture we live in, right? Yes? Except that's not right. He was wrong. It's wrong. Here's my story.


I saw the couple as I finished the turnaround. They were together, a boy with light brown wavy hair and a teenage girl with an oval face; they were laughing and talking as I went past them.

I picked up some speed and swung my arms around, back and forth to get momentum. I was relaxed and having a great time moving fast and feeling the breeze through my hair, when suddenly he grabbed my hand. I looked up and saw him, the same boy I had just seen with his girl. His mouth was wide open in a grin as he sang along to the song that was blasting from the speakers. His other hand was waving around in the air; he seemed to be dancing.

I was thinking fast. He was holding my hand tight, and skating at my speed. What is this? Who is he? Where's that girl he was with? What is going on? Why doesn't he let me go?

I was surrounded by families, kids, people. The crowd was thick, I couldn't just turn or slow down without risking hurting someone around me. I didn't want to make a scene. I relaxed my hand, but he did not let go.

All of this was in the space of a few seconds - by this time we were halfway down the long side. Since I couldn't stop or turn away I tried skating faster, faster than I was comfortable with, trying to force him to let go. I pulled my hand hard as I pushed down on the wheels and finally, I was away from him.


I shook my hand in the air a few times, trying to sort out what happened. I found my husband,  and told him about it. I tried to tell it as a laugh, a joke of a story, "Ha ha, you won't believe what just happened."

I went and washed my hands in the bathroom.

Later, my husband asked me about it. He couldn't understand why I thought this was a joke, why I wanted to make fun of it. He didn't think it was funny. I told him that yeah, it wasn't funny at all. It instead felt icky, like I was wearing coal tar or glue; I wanted to get the feeling off of me as fast as possible.

I was also embarrassed - really, really ashamed. I'm the empathy-gal, right? So maybe I did something to encourage this. Maybe I was doing exactly what my mother tells me all the time not to do; don't let your guard down, don't be open to strangers, don't put yourself at risk, etc.


I stopped feeling bad, though, for two reasons. First, I know that building empathy isn't possible without being open to new connections. It's part of what is important to me; and nothing (not even this guy) will stop me from trying to draw others in. I will keep working hard to smile at strangers, to nod at other customers in stores and to start conversations with my fellow patients at the doctor's office. I will keep myself open, and that's what I'm hoping some of you are working on too.

Second, I know beyond any doubt that nothing about my being 'open' and 'welcoming' and 'friendly to strangers' meant that I asked for this. They are almost opposite actions; what I do is about creating relationships, what he did was about treating me like a toy.


What does bother me is that I didn't make a scene. I didn't yell, or scream, or say, 'hey, you, let go' or anything like that. I didn't say no, and maybe that sent him a message that grabbing a stranger's hand is okay. Or maybe not. I'll never know.

What would you have done?

Has something like this happened to you?


Monday, March 16, 2015

Lost and gained opportunities - location, location, location

Does where you live give you a better 'empathy' environment?

Several years ago, I took a sociology class. The teacher talked about a city environment, where we have social 'circles' that we spend time living in. These circles are the folks we see on the bus every day, our co-workers or classmates, the people we see at the grocery store on Saturday mornings and the crowd at the bar at night. There may be nobody in common among all of these circles - that means that my past days as a city dweller were filled with the chance to meet lots and lots of new people.

Look; a diagram!

I left the city over 10 years ago. My reality now is that I still do have these 'social circles' around me, but they are very few and they have many more people in common. The crowd I meet at the school with my kids are the same people I would see at the grocery store, or at the local coffee bar. Also, I travel in a car and not by bus or train; so I'm not likely to meet anyone when going from one place to another.

I think that leaving the city means I left the numerous circles behind, and as a result, have fewer interactions. It seems obvious now - if I live where there are fewer people then I will meet fewer people in my daily life. So is it better? 


I have no regrets about leaving the city, because I don't think my ability to grow empathy is really affected by how many people I *could* meet every day. All that matters, for me, is to try to make every chance count. If I, by choosing to live in the country, run into less people, that just means I have to be super purposeful with the people I do meet. 

My community is the place where I can take my empathy chances. My community just happens to be a bit smaller than it used to be.

What about you - Where you live, do you have lots of opportunities, or very few? Do you think that where you live makes a difference in your chances to grow your empathy muscles?


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

enough about me already, let's hear about you

Today I'd like to ask you something. I'm asking you to put yourself in someone else's place. You can choose anyone, and any way you think best. We can do it together.

Perhaps you'd like to read a blog from a woman who has pushed through suffering.

Perhaps some of you will go see the movie, "Still Alice", and step inside someone with early onset dementia. Or you can read the book.

Perhaps some of you will try to listen to a stranger, a friend or a family member today.


If any of you decide to do this exercise with me; please tell me (in the comments below) how it worked out. Or perhaps tell us all about a recent experience.

I'd love to hear from you.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

7 point three billion people

As of this writing, the World Population Clock tells me that there about 7.3 billion people on the planet. That's an enormous amount of people.

Growing up in New York City, something I used to hear was, "If you want to do something on a Saturday in NY, chances are that at least 10,000 other people have had the exact same idea."  To me, it's not about the number of people out there, it's about how many of them are having the same idea that I have. They are reaching out. Maybe they feel alone, and they want to connect too.


I know that I'm alone in my own mind. The feelings we feel are personal, and only make sense to the person who is feeling them.

In the below video, you'll see a summary of how we see colors. The red that I think I see, is maybe not the same red that you think you see. I'm not you; so I don't know if we're observing it the same way.

I think that the feelings we feel are (like the colors) something that we can't know just by looking at a person. 

When I see you crying; I can't say 'you are sad'. I don't know why you cry. I don't know what it's like to feel things the same way that you feel things, I can't. I don't know what sadness feels like to you any more than I know what red is to you. I don't know what your 'sad' or 'happy' feels like.


What I do know is that all 7.2 billion of us have felt sad and happy at some point in our lives; and all of us know what feeling sad and happy means to us. So if I see someone crying, I can't say I know that they are sad. Maybe they just have something stuck in their eye. If I see someone laughing, I can't say I know that they are happy.

All I can do is ask them how they are feeling. Maybe they will tell me.

What does feeling happy feel like for you?


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Practicing empathy with my children - two great ideas

I've heard it from other parents and I say it to myself. My kids drive me crazy sometimes.

"Put away your shoes ," I say. "No" they say back. Or I say, "Please go wash your hands, they are filthy." "No, they're not, I'm gonna go play." Etcetera. Every second of every day, over and over again, most conversations are arguments. The battlefield is our kitchen and every household chore hides a landmine. I'm getting back everything I ever said to my mother and I'm getting it in chorus (from both my girls, as they sing "I don't wanna do my home---work" to the tune of "Do you want to build a snow-man?").

A while ago I asked a friend of mine to write a guest post for us about building empathy in children. I asked her to write for me for two reasons; first, she's an expert with kids and parents. Second; I had no idea how to start building empathy for my own growing children. They were 6 and 2, at the time, and I was totally lost.

Ever since then I've been thinking about it; I've been reading articles and listening to podcasts, all trying to find a way to connect with them and to break the argument cycle. As my kids get older I think, are they ready? Can I try to build some empathy in them, or have empathy for them?

Recently, I came across a quick sequence of podcasts talking about empathy and kids, by Dr. Charles Ray of the Love & Logic Institute*.

RSS Feed for the podcasts.
Or click to hear Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 (each one is about 10 minutes long).

Dr. Fay is a little cheesy but he talks a good talk. He said:

- We lose our patience with our kids
- Losing our patience means we get mad, we get emotional, and
- When we yell, we hurt our relationship with our kids
- Breaking the argument cycle is about having that good relationship, and about building empathy 

I took two thoughts away from the podcast that have really, REALLY helped me to slow down the arguing and fighting. I don't do them all the time, but so far these two have brought a ton of empathy into my house.

"I love you too much to argue." If my child takes the fight to me ("No, I don't want to eat my vegetables.") I can fight back, sure. However, if I do fight back I'm telling them, "Yes, this is a problem between you and me". Instead of engaging them, I should pretend I'm just the messenger of the rule. I have to take myself out of the equation; I'm just the one letting them know what the rules are, and the consequences of those rules. In the end it's their problem to solve. I can help them solve it by having empathy for their situation, but it's not my job to convince them the rule is correct.

The sticky note technique. Let's say I want to remember to have empathy for my kids and not to argue with them. The idea is to pick an empathetic statement, and use it over and over again. If I need to, I can put the phrase on sticky notes and paste them up all around the house. Empathetic statements are things like, "Ohhhh, man. how sad." Or "Ohhhhh. I know." 


I've been using these two ideas together for about two weeks now, and I've been surprised how well they work.

I saw my 3-year old daughter get up from the table with all of her food left. I said, "What are you doing, you still have food in your bowl." She said, "I'm all done, I don't want anymore." I looked at her and I said, "Ohhhhh, I know. I know you don't want anymore." I just looked at her. She looked back. And miracle of miracles; instead of arguing, she just sat back at the table and ate her food.

Seriously! It worked really well! One empathetic statement cut the fight off at the knees.


As a parting thought; I know darn well that if I try to do one of these things when I'm mad, or stressed, or tired, I should just forget it. I've talked before about how hard it is to feel empathy when some other feeling is overwhelming me (like anger, or fear). As a result, if I'm already ticked off and ready to explode, this doesn't really happen.  I just know that it's a great tool for my parenting toolbox.

For those of you who are caregivers, do you fight with those you care for? What tools are in your toolbox to stop the arguing? Please add your thoughts in the comments below.


*Love & Logic is a company, so they ask for money for their services (seminars, videos, etc.). The podcasts are free, and I didn't get any money from them for writing this.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Empathy, Race and Trials - the downside of unconscious empathy

I've been thinking this week about unconscious empathy. Unconscious empathy is when I feel an immediate connection with a person - maybe because I see or hear something about them that reminds me of myself.  This kind of empathy is not intentional; and because it's not intentional I believe that it's just too easy for me to make mistakes when doing it.


In 2014, there were a lot of news stories about how people like me, white Americans, are racist. The articles talk about how we treat people unconsciously with bias and disrespect. We walk on the other side of the street from people of a different race. We glare at strangers with hoodies walking through our neighborhoods.

I connect this with empathy because in these examples, we are not empathizing with the people we see at all. I see this because in the same way that I automatically empathize with those who are like me, I do not automatically empathize with those people who are unlike me. It's not done on purpose; I'm not thinking about my behavior. I'm just doing it.

If I don't empathize with the person who is unlike me, I am more likely to treat them with disrespect. This comes to mind when I think about the extreme examples; the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent decision not to bring the case to trial, and the killing of Eric Garner and the dismissal of charges against the police officer. I don't know what happened in those cases any more than you do; but I do know that if I have empathy for someone, I don't want to hurt them. How can I? They are like me.

This lack of empathy by me (one person) can grow from something small to something big when I think about how it affects the system at large, for example, when I consider a trial by jury.

I found this great article on Juror Empathy and Race by Professor Douglas O. Linder*. He makes a lot of interesting points about how juries are generally more empathetic towards the defendant (or the victim) if they share the same race. A jury is told to treat everyone equally, and to only listen to the facts of a case. Yet in case after case, it appears that we still act unconsciously to have more empathy to those who are like us, and to have less empathy for those who are unlike us. Men with less empathy to women. Whites with less empathy to people of color. Cisgender with less empathy for transgender. Etc.

A long time ago I told a story about how I had empathy for a mom at the airport, and how I felt drawn to help her. I look back on that story and think, "what a great example of unconscious empathy". I'm just not sure anymore if it's a good story or a bad one; if it's good, it's good because I helped that woman. If it's a bad story, it's because it tells me that if I was put on a jury, I too could make a bad choice. If a mom committed a crime, would I be less likely to convict her? What about someone who was accused of hurting a child, would I be more likely to convict them?


One of the other interesting points in the article is that educated people are less likely to be chosen for a jury. I don't agree with excluding this group. If I'm on trial, I would want a jury of people who spend more time thinking, and less time reacting. I would want someone judging me who was aware of the unconscious biases in our culture, and was prepared to go against them.


* by Douglas O. Linder link pulled 1/6/2015