As our society is facing unprecedented challenges, our ability to recognize the humanity in each other appears to be waning. The culture of contempt is contagious. We often behave as if we hold a deep dislike for each other and are so convinced that what we believe is the only possible right answer that we forget to listen to other perspectives. I see examples of this every day and believe you may, too.
This act of disregard and dismissal of “the other” can lead to the destruction of society. Distasteful rhetoric fills spaces where we once engaged much differently. We used to care about each other, regardless of our political affiliations or opinions around the state of the world. I choose to believe that we still do – we just need some help remembering how to engage with those who are different from us.
Keeping me afloat during this time of deep division is my deeper belief that we have the tools to fix this mess. We always have, we just forgot because our minds are clouded by judgement, misinformation, and distrust, all of which can be cleared up with a healthy dose of empathy. We can change our path if we dig in, get uncomfortable, and commit to bringing back a society of people who care about each other. It’s going to be messy, but it must be better than what we see today.
Remember caring about someone else even if they were different from you? We learned this as kids. One of the most common remarks from my son’s teachers is his seemingly endless empathy. He’s in third grade and reminds me every day why we should care about each other – not just those in our immediate circles, but our greater society as well. If our kids can lean on empathy to care about each other, so can we all. We just need some practice.
As a reminder, empathy is the ability to appreciate another perspective and show compassion toward someone else. This requires listening to and honoring their story as their truth, even if it doesn’t fit with your experience of the situation. We don’t need to have the exact same personal experiences to understand the feelings and behaviors that come from those events and memories. We just need to be willing to listen and suspend our own judgement long enough to really hear what is being said. We cannot be empathetic and judgmental at the same time. I’ve tried – it simply doesn’t work.
Here’s a tip: If you disagree with someone on their position on any number of divisive issues, ask them why they believe what they do and consider how this perspective impacts their life every day. You just may learn something, and you don’t have to agree with them or change your mind. Simply listening can make someone feel respected, valued, and heard which can lead us to feeling more positively about our interactions, even when we don’t agree.
Here’s another tip: Resist the urge to make assumptions about someone based on your own experiences, which may differ vastly from theirs. We cannot inherently know what goes into forming someone’s opinions or perspectives. The only way we can get to the core of a belief is to ask questions. By getting curious with each other, we can start to understand each other. With understanding, we can start to dismantle the culture of contempt.
Empathy is hard, to be sure, but it makes us better at everything. Better workers, friends, family members, community leaders…everything. Empathy creates connection and drives collaboration, making businesses, organizations, and communities work better together. Empathy can make our personal interactions so much more enjoyable and during this increasingly challenging time in our history. Especially now, I am all about seeking, finding, and sharing more joy. To do that, I am leaning hard on building empathy for myself and those around me. I invite you to join me.
Author: Chantel Schieffer is the president/CEO of Leadership Montana – the premier leadership development organization in Montana. Over the past two decades, Chantel has built a career centered around building a better community for all Montanans.