Bridging the Gap: Empathy is Key

I was hooked by the US Women’s National Soccer matches and celebrations after they won the World Cup. Megan Rapinoe captured my heart and deepest respect. So during her speech at the USWNT parade, when she called upon us to “Love more. Hate Less,” I teared up with a joyful, “YES!” But quickly following that thought was, “How?” How do we bridge the gap in our country, perhaps in our families, or in our relationships? How do we create more connection and decrease the intense divisiveness in our country? How do we love more and hate less?  

The answer is empathy. 

Empathy is the ability to understand another person from their frame of reference. Empathy may be an understanding of their emotional or mental state, verbal stance, and/or physical situation. I draw attention to the word “their” to highlight that the comprehension is not from the view point of the listener, but the talker. If someone has broken their leg and you share your sorrow for them with a story of a time when you broke your leg, that is not empathy. That is sympathy. You are sympathizing with them about a shared experience. If someone has broken their leg and you sit with them, asking them how they are feeling and “mirroring” their experience with statements like, “wow, that must be hard,” or “that sounds really tough,” then you are being empathetic. 

So with this understanding of empathy, how do we apply it to bridging the gap? The idea is to take empathy with you into any conversation, argument, and/or interaction. If we are always coming from the goal of empathetically understanding one another, there will be less arguments. There will be less hurt feelings. There will be less hate.

This isn’t to say that we will all agree. Diversity and freedom of ideas are inherently part of our culture. But with empathy we can observe the diversity of ideas with more understanding, rather than summarizing opposing stances as “idiotic” or “stupid.” Criticizing one another is not an effective way to communicate and it is actually quite detrimental.

Attached is a Ted Talk from 2016 featuring Robb Willer, a social psychologist, encouraging us to use empathy and respect in order to have better political conversations. He explains that research has found stereotypically Democrats and Republicans have different moral leanings and values. The task he urges us all to undertake is learning about the values that one another hold, rather than just spewing rhetoric on one another. 

While this video and blog are largely addressing political divides, these same ideas of empathy and respect can be applied to our personal relationships. Bridging poor communication with your spouse, teen, sibling and/or friend also requires us to use empathy. If we can learn more about why an individual is saying or acting a certain way, we often can be less reactionary. When we are less reactive, we can have discussions not fights. When we are less reactive, we can love more and hate less.