Parker's Prose by Parker Senska

It’s been quite a while since my last column, and people have been asking when I’ll do another, so I figured I’d write about a topic that’s been jostling in my brain: empathy.

Empathy is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.” 

I’m unsure whether it’s because people aren’t employing empathy as much as time goes on or if I’m just noticing people’s lack of it now that I’m older, but all too often, I hear people make comments about others being too whiny, or they state how others’ situations could be miraculously solved. These people are making assumptions instead of taking the time and effort to understand and feel what the other person is experiencing. 

When you try to empathize with someone, you take the time to step back from your own assumptions and instead step into the other person’s shoes. How would you feel in that person’s situation? If you’re then inclined to jump to some sort of solution, take additional time to reflect. What are the obstacles and sacrifices to the solutions you come up with? Understand there may be some you aren’t seeing. In addition, understand that, while that solution may work for you, it wouldn’t necessarily work for others. Everyone has their own personalities, their own strengths and weaknesses, their own skill sets. If your car broke down on the side of the road, and an engineer scoffed and told you to just fix it, how would that feel to you?

Of course, recognize that you won’t be able to understand completely what the other person is feeling, especially if you’re unable to ask them questions to help you understand. It’s very easy to make assumptions, so try to keep the disdain that can arise from this to a minimum, reminding yourself there could be more to the picture.

Empathy can help with this nonsensical us versus them mentality in current politics, too. 

In a Ted Talk by Megan Phelps-Roper, she discussed how civil conversations with others, where each party took the time and effort to understand each others’ points of view, led to revelations that resulted in her leaving the Westboro Baptist Church.

She went on to compare her church’s thinking of “us against everyone else” with the political polarization occuring in today’s society. 

“We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies. No nuance, no complexity, no humanity.”

Phelps-Roper notes four things which those who helped change her mind “did differently that made real conversation possible:” 

Don’t assume bad intent – “Assuming ill motives almost instantly cuts us off from truly understanding why someone does and believes as they do. We forget that they’re a human being with a lifetime of experience that shaped their mind.” Their point of view could stem from a lack of information, or is well meaning but coming from an angle you’re not understanding.

Ask questions – “We can’t present effective arguments if we don’t understand where the other side is coming from.” Don’t assume where they’re coming from. Figure out why your views differ from one another. Be open to the other person reciprocating questions, as well, as they try to understand your own point of view.

Stay calm – “I thought my rightness justified my rudeness. … Dialing up the volume and snark is natural in stressful situations, but it tends to bring the conversation to an unsatisfactory, explosive end.” Resorting to yelling and name calling is a surefire way to get the other side to dismiss anything you say; it merely corroborates their negative view of you. Staying calm can be hard, especially when faced with the other person’s anger and indignation. Should the conversation become too heated, you might even need to take a break from it and choose to continue the discussion later. 

Make the argument – “We sometimes assume that the value of our position is or should be obvious and self-evident, that we shouldn’t have to defend our positions because they’re so clearly right and good. … But if it were that simple, we would all see things the same way.” Clarify your position and why you feel that way. Instead of prepping your next retort, actively listen to what the other person has to say and take a moment to reflect on any counterarguments made. Accept that your own views may change as new points you never realized are brought up.

Even if you’re unable to change the other person’s mind, remember that they’re still human. Humanity is in shades of gray; everyone has good and bad qualities. Weigh on these heavily if you’re ever considering going as far as cutting someone out of your life.

I understand that empathy can be difficult, exhausting, and, by definition, painful at times, but if people could learn to exercise it more often, then our country, our world, would be a much better place.

P.S. If you have 15 minutes, I recommend listening to Phelps-Roper’s entire Ted Talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVV2Zk88beY.

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