taking time for empathy

I spent today away from the computer, writing a letter to a friend and annotating another friend's book manuscript by hand and reading a book and taking a walk around Columbia Point with Hanna. It was a good day. I also spent a lot of time thinking about some of the interactions I've had, and continue to witness, in professional arenas, that evidence a really strong element of dismissal or erasure of the basic fact of life that (as adults) most of us should have grasped by now: Our lived experience is not identical to other peoples' lived experience.

I've seen a LOT of interactions lately -- on the A&A listserv, around the SAA Code of Conduct, in some offline professional conversations, and in some blogging contexts -- where the exchange comes down to Person A ignoring, questioning, dismissing, denying the experience of Person B because Person A has not experienced the same thing in exactly the same way.

There are variations, of course, but the basic theme is always roughly the same:

Person B: I propose that the group do X.

Person A: I don't like that idea! Why would we do X? We don't need to do X. We've always done Y. I'm perfectly happy with Y. Why aren't you happy with Y? If only you understood / were more mature / more professional / acted more like me you would also appreciate the value of Y!

Person B (response 1): I wasn't saying that Y is a bad option, but maybe we could try X also?


Person B (response 2): Since you asked, here are the problems I see with Y. [lists them.] Maybe Y is comfortable for you, but it is causing the problems I just articulated for other people in this group / at this blog / in the world and I find that troubling. With the changes I have proposed in scenario X some if not all of these problems would be alleviated and more people would experience less stress / marginalization / suffering than currently do in scenario Y.

Person A: You are hysterical / delusional / idealistic / young and X would be impossible to implement / isn't needed anyway / would silence people like me / make me feel uncomfortable.

Person B: Um, what? Look at these situations L, M, N, O, and P where the problems I have described occurred and are well documented. Can you not see that situation Y -- while it may not be causing you any immediate problems -- is, in fact, damaging a large number of people in ways Q, R, S, T, U, and V? Couldn't we talk about solutions that would meet the needs of people like you and the needs of people like me in more equitable measure?


Person B: Um, I -- what? Look, we may not be on exactly equal footing here, but it's more that you're older / higher-ranking / socially privileged / TALKING IN ALL CAPS here and I'm trying to accommodate a broader range of voices. I'm trying to remain calm and reasonable here, but you're pissing me off acting like a jerk. I find your aggressiveness pretty much the opposite of awesome here. Look. NO ONE IS TRYING TO TAKE YOUR TOYS. We'd just like to play to. SHARING IS THE DECENT THING TO DO.

Person A: Wow, you have a completely unhelpful attitude. Seriously. You should get some professional help because I don't think we (I) should have to listen to you complain and abuse us (me).

I just keep turning these exchanges around and around in my head and feeling like I'm Finn, in the clip above, doing a little jig in front of Person A in a desperate plea for them to slow down and consider that regardless of whether they believe -- and they may have a legitimate case to make -- that Person B is asking for the impossible or the problematic, the request is coming from a legitimate real-life experience equally valid to the experience of Person A.

Person A doesn't magically get to be the arbiter of what is Most True in the world. (Neither does Person B, but honestly? Most Person Bs in these situations have never labored under that particular illusion.) Both Person A and Person B matter. Equally. As human beings.

And Person A would, frankly, get a lot more empathy from me (and probably other people as well) if they showed any evidence of actually believing that Person B was a) a human being whose b) experience of the world mattered.

And, you know, might have ideas and suggestions and unique perspectives of value to Person A ... if Person A would just take an effing moment to listen instead of shouting and shaming.

Is all I'm saying.

Now go have a restorative, empathy-filled weekend.

1 comment:

  1. Anna, you may find this essay from 2007 by Douglas LaBier, a psycholotherapist who has worked as a business psychologist, of interest. He discusses what he calls Empathy Deficit Disorder in "Empathy: Could it Be What You are Missing?" Some workplaces increasingly are turning to business psychologists as well as other counselors to support workers and managers. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/21/AR2007122102266.html