In this time of huge changes, I find myself once again revisiting the challenge of embodying empathy and curiosity — especially with people with whom I disagree about things that feel fundamental. It is easy when “the tables turn” to move into righteousness, to forget that the feelings you are having now are feelings that were likely experienced by the people on the “other side” before the shift happened. And that nothing good comes from shaming people, or from stoking or reinforcing their fears.
We all have experiences of feeling different, alien, judged as wrong, afraid, angry, of our stories or feelings being rejected, and of rejecting the stories and feelings of others. We have these experiences in common, even when they are caused by different — even “opposite” — situations or ways of looking at the world.
Can we root ourselves in this truth deeply enough that it can become the bridge between our own experience and the experience of others? Can we find a path to empathy and curiosity?
This does not mean not addressing honest disagreements. It does not mean not setting boundaries, or not holding people accountable for behaviors that damage others. It does not mean dismissing our own fears and needs; self-empathy and self-directed curiosity are critical in any healing or wisdom-creation process.
It does mean being willing to listen, without judgment, to the experiences, feelings, and needs1 beneath the opinions and actions of others and allowing ourselves to be touched by them.2
As I have noted again and again in my writing, empathy is a response rooted in curiosity — it is not about agreeing, or supporting a person’s position; it is about being genuinely and compassionately interested in learning more about what is happening for that other person. This is often hardest when the experience someone is having feels alien, or dangerous, to us.
How would our decision-making processes be different if we began by trying to deeply understand the experiences that lead to our different perspectives, opinions, hopes, and fears?
Navigating the Changing COVID-19 Landscape
Here is one practical place we might try to do so in the groups we are part of. This year, we will begin to move out of the pandemic lock downs. As we do this, we have opportunities to reflect on the costs and gifts of the systems we’ve designed to make it through our days, get stuff done, connect, and nurture ourselves and each other in this strange reality of not being able to safely breathe near each other.
We will be emerging from a time of shared experiences of uncertainty, fear, rapid and unpredictable changes, grief, exhaustion… and also, from very different experiences, depending on what our actual journeys through these times have been, and how we respond as individuals and communities to various kinds of challenges.
We will need to be evaluating the systems we’ve been using to ride out the pandemic in our workplaces (and other groups we are part of), and making choices about how those should evolve moving forward.
As you do that work, I invite you to try creating processes that will strengthen empathy and curiosity. I also challenge you to take to heart the goal of designing learning and decision-making processes that allow us to integrate divergent points of view and experiences into creativity and wisdom.
I’ve just created a handout with some highly interactive exercises you could use as part of such a process. It’s called Mapping Our Pandemic Experiences and Our Paths Forward, and you will find it on the Tools for Team Building and Facilitation page of my website.
- I’m using the nonviolent communication definitions of feelings and needs here.
- My thanks to Ross Gay for his observations on being “touched” in his Book of Delights, which in many ways inspired this article.
- Expanding on Sam Kaner, et. al. in the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.
Join the conversation…
You can ask questions, share your experiences, and be part of the conversation below.
Related Different Angles eNewsletter articles:
- A Time for Transformative Change
- Reaching for Brave
- Survival Strategies: Why This is All so Hard and Some Strategies for Getting Through it.
Upcoming Workshops at PCC
My new advanced facilitation class, Beyond Basics: More Tools for Experienced Meeting Facilitators will run on four consecutive Tuesdays starting Tuesday, February 16th, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.
This is a highly participatory workshop for experienced facilitators and people who’ve taken my basic workshop. We’ll explore and practice ways to work with difficult meeting dynamics, resolve conflicts, and increase creativity and collaboration.
The CRN is 16325 and the cost is $49 plus the book, The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.
You do need to pre-register through PCC.
If you are interested in this workshop but can’t make this offering of it, please let me know. If there is enough interest, I will offer it again in May or June, independent of PCC.
Spring Semester at PCC
How to Make Online Meetings Less Terrible, a 2 hour workshop for anybody feeling challenged by running online meetings, is Tuesday, April 8th, from 6:30 to 8:30. NOTE: The PCC catalogue lists the end time as 8:20. but we will go to 8:30. The CRN is 24628. The cost is $25.
Tools for Getting Unstuck on three consecutive Tuesdays starting April 20th, from 7:00 to 8:30 pm. NOTE: PCC lists the end time as 8:20, but we will go to 8:30. The CRN is 24635. The cost is $35.
Feeling stuck stifles our creativity, brings up judgment and anxiety, and wastes a lot of time. Come learn some ways to get out of stuck spots, make decisions you’ll feel good about and create the forward motion you need to create the changes you desire. These techniques can be used at a personal level and in organizations (workplaces, boards, families, recreational and creative organizations, etc.).
Moving from Complaints to Collaboration will run two consecutive Tuesdays, May 18th and 25th, from 7:00 to 8:30 pm. NOTE: PCC lists the end time as 8:20, but we will go to 8:30. The CRN is 24642. The cost is $29.
Complaints can feel like burdens and shut us down. Learn simple, effective ways to shift your own approach, and your organization, team, or relationship, from a dynamic of complaint to a dynamic of collaboration. This is a highly interactive, practice-based workshop that offers tools for interrupting complaints in ways that encourage curiosity rather than defensiveness and make it easier to move forward together.
You do need to pre-register for these workshops through PCC.
I am offering training, coaching and facilitation online
I am currently supporting organizations and individuals primarily online, using phone, Zoom, and Mural, a powerful and easy to use tool for visual collaboration.
© Tasha Harmon, February 2021. All rights reserved.
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