Empathy is Not Endorsement

Sometimes, the most subversive thing you can do is to actually speak with the people you disagree with, and not simply speak at them. ~Dylan Marron

Unite Widely. Sounds a bit daunting, doesn’t it? We seem to be very good at drawing lines in the sand and taking sides. The most popular strategy appears to be suggesting that we fear the “other.” And I have the audacity to suggest that we Unite Widely.

The NeuroLeadership Institute recently offered a series called “How to be an Ally in this Moment.” They provide three points. Listen Deeply. Unite Widely. Act Boldly. I want to very briefly unpack how we can begin to Unite Widely.

Dylan Marron is a young man who has been bullied most of his life and now challenges himself to empathize with those he profoundly disagrees with. In this TED Talk, Dylan said this about empathy. “Empathy, it turns out, is a key ingredient in getting conversations off the ground when people disagree. It can feel very vulnerable to be empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with.”

Empathy is Not Endorsement

Dylan continues to describe empathy. “Empathy is not endorsement. Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not suddenly compromise your own deeply held beliefs and endorse theirs. It just means that you’re acknowledging the humanity of someone who was raised to think very differently from you.”

In order to be empathetic, to acknowledge the humanity of someone else, and to ultimately Unite Widely, we need to individually have a healthy personal identity that is not so easily influenced by outside sources. Christena Cleveland tells us that “identity and self-esteem processes are driven by a sinister force: our unmet desire to feel good about ourselves.” So, if we’re driven by a desire to feel good about ourselves, that makes being empathetic (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another), next to impossible.

This has caused me to really consider that if I hear a view or perspective that creates an emotional reaction, maybe I need to do more work on my own personal identity. Is my emotional reaction more about me than about what they are saying or proposing? If I have a resilient personal identity, then I should be able to choose how I respond and really listen to their perspective. In other words, empathize.

This is likely why the NeuroLeadership Institute started their three points with Listen Deeply. If we can’t Listen Deeply, we can’t really empathize. And, if we can’t empathize, how in the world can we Unite Widely?

Personal Challenge

I’ll end this post with a challenge for how to Unite Widely. If someone shares a similar view, perspective, or experience, it’s fairly easy to empathize. What if you find someone who has a dissimilar view and ask them why they have that view, to empathize, not debate? If you aren’t ready for that, maybe take a few minutes and listen, really listen, to an opposing political view (since there’s currently an abundance, regardless of your view) and ask yourself, why do they have that view. This doesn’t mean you endorse their view, just listen to understand, to acknowledge their humanity. That gets a step closer to empathy, which then gets a step closer to Unite Widely.

Listen Deeply. Unite Widely. Lead with bold grace.

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