This is my second blog post in a series on Diversity and Inclusion. In this piece, I’d like to focus on the diversity of thought and the inclusive act of listening with courageous empathy to those who don’t agree with you.
Imagine that you work with someone, a colleague, who has a very different background than you do. You disagree with them on virtually everything including “the facts.” You feel that what you believe in is right and in the best interest of the collective whole. It’s hard to even listen to your colleague or understand where they are coming from. Trust and respect is waning. You’d rather avoid them altogether, but there is a job that has to get done.
- How do you maintain professional decorum when such a chasm exists between the personal values and beliefs you both hold?
- How can you work together to solve important problems when you fervently believe in vastly different approaches?
- How do you heal “a house divided” and find a way back to a united front in spite of your differences?
These uncomfortable situations could be referred to as many other things, including: conflict, a difference of opinion, disagreement, argument, crucial conversations, being stubborn, not listening, closed-mindedness, the “I’m right and you’re wrong” mindset, unconscious bias, stereotyping, discrimination, defensiveness, lying, strong-arming, bullying. Some people call it free speech. Others call it reality. Whatever you call it, I find these experiences to be most unpleasant. And yet they are unavoidable.
How can we continue to respect each other and collaboratively work together in spite of our differences?
Have you heard the expression “courageous empathy”? I first heard it from Cory Booker while he was answering a question at the third Democratic presidential primary debate in El Paso, Texas on September 12th. I found this Twitter post from 2016 where he explains it as follows: “It is an act of courageous empathy if you believe you’re right but still work to understand the thoughts and feelings of those you disagree with.”
I became intensely curious about what he meant by courageous empathy. I could grasp the meaning and implication of each word by itself, but never have I heard them put together. What could this mean?
I googled the expression and this image popped up. Turns out Cory Booker has been writing about this idea for several years. I also found this blog from 2013 by Lyden Foust titled: The Courage of Empathy – Why We Have Got It All Wrong. Compelling title – makes you want to read it!
I used to consider people with deep levels of empathy as “cursed.” I would see how they suffered taking on all the burdens of the world. They would take everything so personally. I could understand how some professionals like doctors, psychiatrists, and social workers had to practice some distancing from their clients/patients just to stay sane. But that distancing, removal of all emotion and empathy, can be detrimental as well.
Are some people just better able to practice empathy than others? Are some people more courageous than others? Are you born with these traits or does one develop them over time, with life experience and the influence and encouragement from others?
Observing Courageous Empathy in Action
I had the unique opportunity over this past summer to witness a remarkable moment of courageous empathy between two colleagues in one of my workshops. Just so you know, I have permission from both the key players to share this story with you. To protect their identity, I will not tell you their names or who they work for.
There is a bit of a backstory leading up to this magical moment that I will cherish for many years to come. Please bear with me as I set the scene.
During the lunch break on the first day of a two-day presentation skills workshop, ten of us sat together in a brightly lit atrium at a very nice hotel. It was a welcomed break from the intensity of the morning session. We had pre-ordered lunch and it was served in style by the hotel conference staff. I was looking forward to some light-hearted conversation.
Then someone asked the group a question: which office had the most diversity? Not sure what they meant, I asked for clarification on diversity. They responded men versus women. They compared notes on the gender composition of their current work teams. Then someone shared an opinion that they didn’t like having to hire for diversity; they preferred to hire only the most qualified candidates. That then led to a deeper discussion about the issues in education, economic opportunity, and unconscious bias. We were getting kind of heavy now. Thankfully, the lunch hour was nearing the end and we could return to the safe zone of public speaking (oh yay, that can be anxiety-ridden, too).
The day passed quickly as we resumed our core work on finding new ways to inform, inspire and motivate audiences to action without boring them to death with endless PowerPoint presentation slides. The group was really stretching by using creativity to bring their message to life and to make their point. In one exercise using props (i.e., physical items such as toys, magazines, or ordinary objects) they were asked to create visual interest, engage the audience, and make a connection to their big idea. I had brought a small box of items to choose from. Earlier that day, I found a newspaper in the hotel lobby with a large photo of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon and saluting the American flag. The USA Today newspaper headline was “And the rest is history. NASA’s enduring photo says it all – almost”. It was such an extraordinary image and provocative headline that I sensed at least one of the participants would select it as their prop. And indeed one of them did, but not for the reason I was thinking.
All of the participants were standing in a circle, presenting their prop and telling a story of how this prop connected with one of their key points or key messages from their presentation. Sure enough, out comes the USA Today newspaper, and one of the participants calls our attention not to the lead story, but to a sidebar story with the headline, “Americans offended by Trump’s ‘go back’ tweets.” The participant went on to use his time to make the point that the media were creating divisiveness in our country with newspaper headlines like this. I could feel my blood pressure rising both from disagreement and also embarrassment that my creative exercise had suddenly gone way out of control.
The next participant to share their prop in this exercise had selected a ribbon and gold medal that you might see being awarded at the Olympics or some athletic competition. (The photo on the right is the actual prop that was used in this exercise). The participant did a remarkable thing. On the spot he changed what he was going to say to create a moment of courageous empathy. He told the story of how his mom came to visit him in the United States from Iran. They had not been able to see each other for many years since the participant had immigrated to the USA and had become a US citizen. It was a joyous reunion that only lasted a few days until she got very sick. Not knowing what was causing her pain, they took her to the hospital where she was attended to by many different healthcare professionals. He mentioned she was seen by an African American surgeon, an Asian American nurse, a Latino cardiologist, a Caucasian female radiologist, a Muslim internist, and a bunch of other hospital workers there to help her get better. I will paraphrase the essence of what he said to his colleagues:
“Not once did anyone in that hospital ask my mom where she was from, or about her citizenship. They were focused on taking care of my mom and making her feel better. It was through this experience that I was reminded that people are inherently compassionate. It is who we are. It is what we do. We take care of people. We don’t judge people or refuse them because they are different. We care for them because they are fellow human beings. Inside, we are all the same. That’s what makes this country great!”
He then took the medal and walked across the middle of the circle to where his colleague stood. He placed the medal and ribbon around is colleague, and then gave him a hug. Everyone else watching this unfolded started to applaud. For me it was an incredible moving moment. Why? Because these two individuals were able to listen to each other empathetically and had the courage and dignity to maintain respect and connection with each other despite their different political views. I wish more people (including me) could do that more often.
A Call to Action
“Communicating with people from different backgrounds would make you realize that we have more in common than we could ever know from judging from afar.”
I invite you to be on the lookout for examples of courageous empathy in action. Recognize them, applaud them, celebrate them. And find opportunities to practice the skills of courageous empathy through your actions and communication. No doubt there will be many opportunities to practice – in your workplace, family, and community. You may not get it right the first time, or the second time, or even the third time, but just having the awareness and making the effort will make you a more peaceful, inclusive person. Find the courage to display empathy towards others and to listen to what they have to say…especially when they don’t agree with you.