How Far Can Your Empathy and Understanding Take You?
Leadership Lesson: Leadership is nothing without being able to at least see and take into consideration the other side’s stake in and experience with an issue or an environment.
Politics aside, what does it take for you to see the other side of an argument?
Hypothetically, if an issue is brought before our group, how do we understand it as it applies to the greater good of a group and how might we try to relate to its cause and mission?
In January 2017, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Paul Ryan was confronted by a Republican attendee at a CNN town hall, where the man was able to address Speaker Ryan directly and tell him his own story in which he converted from staunch opposition to the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) to a strong supporter of the Act after it, in his own words, saved his life.
For any issue which we might challenge at first, do we need to be personally impacted by that issue for us to finally see its worth, merit or benefits?
Can we take empathy one step further, beyond relating and understanding someone’s trials and tribulations, and consider what would happen to us or how we would be impacted and respond if certain issues landed at our doorstep? It is obviously hard to understand the implications of devastating health news but, using it as an example, could we begin to understand the dire implications of an unfortunate diagnosis before it actually played out?
Do we have to wait until things take a turn for the worse to, at least, understand something we so strongly opposed? (For another conversation: “Understanding” does not mean concession to the other side. Learning about something and making suggestions for improvements, instead of wholesale changes, does not demonstrate weakness. These are merely first steps for conveying the need for changes.)
It is important to understand what others are going through. That empathy is powerful. But are we really able to understand, as much as we can, what that reality really entails. Feeling bad for another person shows understanding, but is it visceral and palpable enough to know how impactful diagnoses, results, and consequences actually might feel?
The issue in society today, for the most part, is that each of us speaks against the other side, and very rarely do we convey that we understand where they may be coming from. We can’t just address a professional, personal or leadership issue from our stance and position alone. There are so many ripple effects that exist, meaning, that yes, we may not be able to understand the full scope of something, but making a diligent effort to understand implications is important for the path to reconcile differences and needs.
With a very basic review, one can see there’s a period for calm discourse, a subsequent period for building tension, and a final, all-out combative period between two impatient and unrelenting sides expressing and fighting tooth-and-nail for their ideas.
Why wait for the latter two phases when reaching a common middle ground of understanding in the first phase will do? Yes, it is easier said than done, but why waste so much energy in heightened opposition when the same energy can be utilized to build effective consensus where parties can meet in the middle?
It’s in both sides’ best interests to try to understand what the worst case scenario would mean to one’s own side. Addressing a matter in a calm, understanding manner now avoids the need for both sides to exert exponential energy later in either deeper opposition and combat or trying to restore good faith and cool-headed dialogue.
Where are YOU focusing your energy — calm collaboration today or crisis control and combat later?
This won’t be easy to cover and achieve in every situation; it would be naive to believe so. But where do you want to exert and best maximize your energy and attention?
How can we possibly assume that we or someone we are close to will never have to face that which we argue against when our guard and shields are down and we least expect it?
So…What About You?
- How do you address ideas that currently don’t impact you, but which could?
- How might thinking in this manner shift your thinking on certain issues?
- Have issues to which you were an ardent opponent come back to bite you in the ____?