Last week I tried to write this story about empathy for the opposing party and I couldn’t. I was feeling overly anxious and stressed about the US Presidential Elections and the "No" Vote on Colombia's plebiscite to approve the current version of the peace accords.
With less than 30 days in the national presidential debate, I am feeling, tired, angry, charged, stressed, and like this entire political season is a charade. I also felt like it was hard to disconnect from the political chatter because so many of my values and who I want the country to be is on the line. I imagine many of you also feel this way and are feeling burned out.
From race, culture and police relations, immigration reform to sexual assault, women’s bodies and the economy, I feel totally under attack. Anger and frustration are healthy emotions and we should find healthy ways to express them.
When I am in this type of angry position, it’s hard for me to cultivate empathy immediately, see the other side and be my best self. Many of you may also feel this stress or anger. So is it realistic for you to cultivate empathy in this political season?
The truth is that it’s different for everyone. Everyone has different levels of tolerance based on their lived experiences and different abilities to let go of anger. However, cultivating empathy and compassion is truly important, especially when the stakes are high and the issues are charged.
Empathy allows us to step in someone else’s shoes and try to understand the other person's condition and emotions from their perspective. Empathy is a necessary element to understanding immigration reform, sexual assault and race relations. If we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of vulnerable communities, it can be extremely difficult to build empathy for others and even harder to find consensus.
So how do we cultivate empathy in extreme situations like this political debate?
DRAWING A LINE BETWEEN THE EXTREME AND THE MANAGEABLE
Some conversations and actions are more manageable than others. For me an overload of social media and news, causes me to feel anxious and unsafe. So I have to draw a line in the sand every day for myself to prevent the overload and anxiety from seeping into my own work and relationships with others. After all to make culture shifting changes in my consulting work, I have to work with people all across the political spectrum, so keeping balance is key to my own professional success. For others, attending rallies, unfriending people on social media and not engaging family members in political conversations can be part of the making choices around your line of engagement.
BE VULNERABLE AND ALWAYS STAND IN YOUR POWER
A friend of mine was having a conversation with two male family members who referred to 1996 Miss Universe Alicia Machado as “the housekeeping.” She quickly responded by telling them how disrespectful it was to refer to women this way, asking them to consider how they would feel if this were their own daughters. This silenced her family members instantly. As women we have an opportunity to push back on conversations that sexually demean other women. It’s never a good idea to pit women against women especially when sexual assault is at stake no matter what party you are affiliated with.
And If you are a survivor, silence may feel safer than speaking out. I urge you to do what’s right for you. This is also true for people of color who experience other forms of violence (poverty, microaggressions, racism) on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes silence feels safer especially when you are just not sure what to do in awkward situations and when passive aggressive behavior is at play. Being in your power means owning your choices whatever they are.
STEP INTO THE OTHER PERSON’S SHOES
This week I tried to step into Donald Trump’s shoes. I was unsuccessful at first, wondering what would cause someone to have so much hate for others. I then forced myself to imagine Donald as a small child. Children do not know sexual assault, they do not hate other people, they do not suffer from the many social ills we suffer from as adults. Imagining him as a child, allowed empathy to flow through me. I began thinking about what his parents must have been like, his role models, his childhood. This helped me see how sad and lonely it must have been and is to be Donald Trump. While it doesn’t excuse his behavior it does make me wonder about the millions of followers out there, living lonely and scared lives. In some ways we, as a country, are also responsible for engaging them, educating them, making sure they have the tools to keep up with the new millennium.
Consider how difficult it must be to live in isolation and the amount of work we still have to do to educate and heal communities around race, gender and sexual orientation. Speaking to opposing sides from a place of empathy, allows us to ask empowering questions to people on opposite sides of an isle and to discover who they are and how they came to have certain beliefs.
TAKE THE HIGH ROAD: FOCUS ON PURPOSE AND VALUES NOT STRATEGY
Most failed negotiations and debates in business and politics are because people are focused on strategy and outcome instead of purpose, values and relationships. Focusing on strategy makes conversations small. For example, I have a strategy and I want you to adapt it to fix the problem we are facing. That leaves a limited number of solutions for the opposing party to take. Instead take a wider approach and talk about the impact a situation is having on you -- How you feel, what’s important to you, what your deepest concerns are. Then leave space for others to share the impact the problem is having on them. Purpose and values will help you know who you are, who the other person is and what’s important to them – creating more avenues and possible strategies for mutual success.
MANAGE YOUR POWER AND PRIVILEGE
We all have different forms of power and privilege that are operating all the time – education level, profession, income, race, age, gender, migration status, sexual orientation, disability and many others. During this political season, manage that power and privilege, which is always acting and giving or taking away your ability to exert power and influence over any situation. Consider if your family member said something you didn't agree with, would you respond to them the same way you respond to either political candidate?
Our relationships as a country are at stake. A taxi drive said to me, let's vote the people I don't agree with off to an island. No -- that is dictatorial and completely un-American value. We can heal relationships and double down resources and open conversations to those areas where voters have different opinions or are still feeling the economic crisis. If we don't open lines of communication between different communities, we will find ourselves facing bigger problems of home grown terrorists and breaks in race relations -which are already happening.
In the end, the choice of how you want to walk in the world is yours. They key is to lead from a place of choice as often as possible.
Your turn: How are you coping with the political season? Is it working? What else might you do to cope with stress?
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