Follow the path to truth.
Source: Courtesy of EA Segal
Last month, I wrote about how to be fully engaged in empathy. To do so includes listening to others to verify that what we think they are feeling and experiencing is indeed what they are feeling and experiencing. It sounds simple, but so often we do not listen, or even ask.
The Importance of Listening
Not listening is a common response to experiences that make us feel uncomfortable or are too horrible to want to imagine. This is especially true with experiences or actions that if we acknowledge them to be true, we have to rethink our own lives. For example, in our personal worlds, listening carefully and deeply to someone we may have hurt means that we have to recognize and acknowledge that we did something hurtful to another person. That can disturb us in a number of ways.
Who wants to find out that they did something hurtful? We may see ourselves as nice and helpful. Hurting someone can force us to question whether we are indeed nice and supportive. Or it can force us to consider how we behave generally. In listening deeply, we can be faced with seeing ourselves in a way that rocks our world.
There is more to listening deeply to others. It may uncover false stories that we have lived by. We may discover that we have benefited at the expense of others. We end up hearing what we want to hear or need to hear rather than what the other person is really saying.
This is also true on the larger level of our society. We as a nation have a lot of trouble using empathic insight to understand the lived realities of painful discriminatory actions in America. We often hear about the “good old days” and that life was better than it is now. But, were the “good old days” good for all of us? Are we listening closely to the stories of groups’ experiences over history? Or are we content to believe false stories?
Listening to History
It is difficult and painful to listen to stories that ask us to bear witness to mistreatment and discrimination. For example, slavery in this country is a story we either don’t like to hear in its lived reality or we fall back on arguments that give us safe distance. We hear responses like it was long ago and no longer exists, or it wasn’t that bad, or some go as far as to deny slavery was problematic because it was just an old economic system that is now gone. Or, we might acknowledge that it was a terrible part of our history, but it was long ago and ended, so why should we look at it today? Taking these perspectives includes outright denial, invalidation of the impact that history can have through today, and nostalgia for the way we think things were.
Brené Brown in her recent book Atlas of the Heartdescribes nostalgia as “a yearning for the way things used to be in our often idealized and self-protective version of the past”1 (p. 79). She explains that while nostalgia can soften the way we remember challenging or painful times in our lives, it can also block growth by negating the need for future change. She includes in her discussion how we can refer to the “good old days” as a way to keep people in their place, ignore other people’s pain, and maintain the way things are if that benefits us.
We Benefit From Deep Listening
Listening deeply is crucial for empathizing with others. While difficult, there is also a benefit. It can lead us to see ourselves through the eyes of others, which can help us examine who we really are and who we want to be. And, as a society, it can do the same. It can help groups see their own history in relation to others and how we have been impacted and benefited or have been disadvantaged and blocked. We can have an honest dialogue about history and what it means today. This is extremely difficult. It is what is asked of us when we engage in social empathy, the ability to understand different people and social groups by experiencing and understanding their lived realities, including the history of ours and their ancestors.
A Tool for Listening
There is a way to do this kind of deep listening on a community basis. My colleague David Androff has written extensively on the practice of truth and reconciliation. I am going to briefly talk about it here and then expand on this in my next post because I think it is one of the most powerful ways we can engage in social empathy to address and repair historic injustices.
Dr. Androff describes several formats for truth and reconciliation, from formal nationwide hearings to smaller community groups exchanging experiences. The overall goal is rather simple, “to discover and tell the truth about what has happened to people”2 (p. 242) and in that way give the entire story of what happened in the past. Although the past may be years, decades, or even centuries behind us, it is woven into the fabric of our society. Like each of us individually are the product of the generations of our families and their experiences, so too is our society built on the events of our national history.
Dr. Androff goes on to explain that telling our stories, especially for those who have been victims and traumatized, can actually help us heal and recover. Denial or silence negates what happened for so many, which, in turn, negates their lived experiences. Confirming what happened validates people, and that is part of what makes truth and reconciliation processes so powerful.
People often ask me, how can we do social empathy? Using the process of truth and reconciliation is a concrete way to be socially empathic. Hearing the stories of real lives, even when it makes us uncomfortable, is how we can engage with others authentically and, in the process, encourage healing and change.