Friday, April 2, 2010

Empathy from Left Field

I love a good challenge, and Helen Smith’s recent article immediately called my attention. As someone who’s dedicating my life, in part, to increasing empathy all around in the culture, I found some of her comments painful, because they matched my own experience with liberals.

The Missing Empathy for the Right
In the social circles in which I find myself, and in much of the Left media, conservatives are regularly referred to as stupid (at best), backward, uncaring, or unevolved. At every opportunity I have, especially in my workshops, I invite people to look at what might be the underlying values behind conservative positions, to imagine how a decent fellow human could arrive at such opposing views. I wish I could contradict Helen Smith, but my experience only confirms what she says.

I see a complete dearth of genuine, open-hearted empathy towards conservatives. I regularly hear jokes at the expense of conservatives in my workshops, and I cringe. I am not conservative myself. Far from it! I find most liberals to be more conservative than me. I cringe because if I were a conservative, I would not experience Nonviolent Communication communities hospitable. I worked for several years with volunteers who are part of the campaign to create a department of peace in the US. They have not been able to cross the Democrat-Republican divide. As I see it, the obstacle was not the Republicans, but rather the challenge these activists had in being able to hear their opponents, listen with respect and care, imagine their values and deeper longings and aspirations, and be open to be affected by what they hear. What is dialogue, after all, if we are expecting others to change their views, positions, or strategies, without a comparable willingness on our part to be affected and changed by what we hear?

(tomorrow – more on cultivating empathy)


  1. Heya Miki, I appreciate reading this. My experience is pretty similar to yours in this area. This leads me to have a few questions for you as well:

    I wonder - do you have personal experience with talking with conservative or Republican individuals or communities?

    Also, I wonder - do you have personal experience with sharing Nonviolent Communication with conservative or Republicans individuals or communities?

    Thank you, and I am wishing you all the best!

    - Ian

  2. Miki

    I was very happy and hopeful to read this. I've been thinking the same thing for a long time but certainly never expressed it as eloquently as you did.

  3. Miki, I'm glad you are writing about this and remember being in a workshop with you where this came up and since then I have worked at becoming more aware of this when it happens in my workshops and in my life. I really get it.

    Here's something I found interesting when I heard of it: Prior to the last presidential election some liberal friends of mine (who practice NVC) invited several conservative/republican acquaintances to a gathering to really try to hear why they choose the positions they do. By all accounts it was enlightening on the part of the liberals (I am not acquainted with the conservatives at the gathering). What is interesting is that after the conservative/republicans were heard they were asked if they'd like to hear why the liberals choose the positions they do. The answer was 'no.' Turns out the conservative/republican folks said they came to the gathering so that they could try to change the minds of the liberals - they wanted the liberals to shift to a more conservative position.

    I intend no criticism of anyone by telling the above story. It's just fascinating to me - how people can be so terribly sure that 'our way is the right way' and lose sight of the big picture.

  4. Hi Miki
    I appreciate your post, and hope to hear more. Myra Walden brought my attention to it.

    My son in law, Nolan, identifies himself as a conservative, and I enjoy attempting to have true dialogue with him. I think I "get it" about how he has chosen to believe and value what he does. (By the way, NVC sometimes equates "values" with "needs," I understand.)

    His personal history prompts him to be suspicious of liberals because of painful experiences he had when he was young regarding a person who was close to him and had power - and presented as a liberal.

    Really connecting with Nolan around public policy issues is difficult for me - and yet my love for him helps me avoid the trap of "enemy image," that to me seems to be the crux of the disconnecct.

  5. I find it difficult to empathize with conservatives or have any sympathy for them because in my opinion they usually support horrible policies that harm many people and often contribute to destroying the planet.

  6. Why do we need "empathy" for either side?
    I understand and appreciate diversity - something that is being terrorized and swallowed up everyday, but I'm not really on board with the empathy watch for political parties. Respect,yes. Tolerance, yes.
    I see an element in this chaos brewing that very few people talk about outside the context of politics. It has to do with the psychological "wellness" (or lack of) in this country. I think we are grieving; many have discovered anger in abundance and overwhelming powerlessness in their lives. It isn't about policy reform and political agendas - not completely. Like the marriage counselor that tells the wounded couple fighting all the time "this isn't about the toothpaste, is it?"
    I have heard of the potential establishment of the Department of Peace in the U.S. - I can't for the life of me figure out what Peace has to do with politics. Any human figure in the history of humankind that has struggled to establish momentum and movement for peace - never identified with a political party or attempted to gain access through any of them. What a disaster.
    Lastly. We do so much harm speaking of events in this country with "people labels" - the recent distasteful and repulsive display of individuals who are threatening officials and politicians following the health care passage...immediately came out in press as "conservatives" and "Republicans" and "teabagger" incidents.
    I think non-violence best begin with stripping labels and peace be birthed as far away as possible from government.

  7. I would love some support in my own experience with this. I tried a little empathy experiment in my head when I was first learning NVC, imagining some conservative fundie pushing to diminish my personal rights as a lesbian, disabled person (ie unable to compete in a market economy), economically poor person, non-Christian, woman, etc. I ended up getting stuck on "Are you feeling afraid for your need for safety?..." because they honestly believe their God will cause them suffering if they tolerate or support people like me in the world he supposedly created. How would you get unstuck from there? Or did I go down a wrong path in terms of empathy (I have PTSD, and am very aware "safety" is a perception-based need, but it is a real need that really motivates real behavior, even if their perception of "safety" seems unnecessarily limited)?

    It has seemed to me for years that I have very often heard fear and anger as the most common feelings behind conservative political arguments, with safety and security coming up as likely needs very, very often. But where do we go from there?

    many thanks to anyone who can help me with this. Feel free to contact me at caerasinger [at] gmail [dot] com (if you are a human being, please type that in correctly. I try hard to avoid spambots)

  8. i read with great interest all of the above comments. i am grateful to have stimulated all this conversation.

    i have a couple more thoughts after reading this. first, i want to say that unless you have a lot of practice, it's hard to let go of the content of someone's view on this or that public policy so that we can look at the underlying human needs that fuel that view. and yet, in my experience, when i am able to do that, i experience much more connection and mutual understanding. it takes practice because we tend to REACT to the content, and then not see what's behind it.

    the other piece i wanted to share here is a tip about what helps me with this practice. this is especially relevant to caera's question. i find, from my experience and from working with others, that if i leave my empathy at the level of "safety" it doesn't quite serve to open my heart. the other person still remains foreign in some subtle way. this is because i am still in some way analyzing rather than empathizing. how i know that is because a person would rarely say about themselves that they have this or that view because what they want is safety. there is a jump there, and that jump is my own distance.

    instead, what i look for is what could be a dream that the other person may have. so, if someone would wish to limit your rights, i would understand that to mean that there is some beauty or coherence, a sense of order and meaning in the universe, that is at the heart of it. of course i can't know. still, when i focus on that, my heart softens. that's the main way that i know that i really hit on empathic understanding - the state of my own heart.

    i hope this addresses some questions that people have had about this post.