Last month I wrote about thinking from within someone else’s perspective. This, from my view, is the next step beyond deep, open-hearted listening in dialogue: it shows the highest respect for others by actively engaging their values and beliefs. In other words, we get inside their heads to understand and empathize.
To get to this place, I have used what I’m calling a “glimpse of empathy.” Let’s say my dialogue partner is trying to communicate the emotional impact of an issue that’s important to her. I don’t feel that way about that issue. But I have felt that way—in another context, perhaps at another level of intensity—somewhere else. Visiting that emotional space within me gives me a tiny glimpse of what she must be feeling. That glimpse enables me to empathize.
An example may help. Recently I jumped into an extraordinary online conversation that touched on living as a member of a historically oppressed group, particularly women and people of color. As a white man, I can listen deeply and open-heartedly to the experience of people in these groups, but it is impossible for me to fully grasp, to the depths of my soul, what that experience must be like.
Not long after, someone asked me about the experience of living as a more or less moderate-progressive Episcopalian in a ruggedly conservative diocese. It is difficult and sometimes painful. I have attended diocesan conventions knowing that none of the resolutions dear to my heart would be passed. I have been told—respectfully—that I cannot lead a workshop because I am not conservative. My chances of holding a diocesan office and contributing on that level are zero. While I’ve built some satisfying relationships at convention, I feel a profound sense of otherness, of not belonging.
I wondered whether this—in some very small, very limited way—was what oppression felt like. That was my glimpse of empathy.
Now allow me to admit something. I’m not sure about this glimpse-of-empathy business. And I’d like to hear your thoughts.
On the one hand, glimpses of empathy should be handled with extraordinary care. I should never assume that, just because I’ve felt excluded at a diocesan convention, I “know what it’s like to be oppressed” as a woman or a person of color. I will never “know what it’s like”—the fear and pervasiveness and powerlessness of oppression.
Moreover, I wouldn’t want to communicate anything approaching “I know what it’s like” to my dialogue partner. She would likely take it as arrogance, and rightly so. The dialogue would suffer and perhaps break down.
On the other hand, glimpses of empathy have the potential to be extraordinarily powerful in advancing both dialogue and solidarity. If we can find some emotional/experiential foothold within ourselves to begin to identify with others—however small that foothold is—we can appreciate their experience and their mindsets from within ourselves. In doing so, we build a bond that could be very difficult to break. Our perspective on the world opens wider. Every time that happens, the capacity for opening still wider, for empathizing with still more people, grows.
Perhaps we can even put this glimpse of empathy before our dialogue partner for verification. It would require humility: not “I know what it’s like” but rather “I’ve had this experience. It’s not even close to what you’ve experienced, but I wonder if it can help me start empathizing with what you’re saying. What do you think?”
We can never “know what it’s like.” We can begin to get a tiny glimpse of what it’s like. I think this glimpse of empathy can help us do so. What do you think?