During a Sunday morning run, Randy and I saw a woman emerging from her house. Shortly after, a man came charging after her. He called her every name oppressive to women. She stood there and took it while making a call on her cellphone.
The man was rather large, so Randy and I both knew we couldn’t confront him. As we got closer to them, I felt myself contracting, feeling the sting of every insult he was hurling at her.
“I love my mama!” Randy shouted at him.
The man looked up at him, perplexed. I felt the same.
“I love my mama,” he said again as we ran past them.
Randy’s words remained with me, wondering what he meant.
“Why did you say that,” I asked.
“Every man loves his mama,” he answered. “I figured I could make him think about his mama when he talked to her like that.”
Rather than use force or escape (like I did), Randy appealed to his heart. He tried to short-circuit the man’s violent words. It was an empathetic means of approaching conflict.
We can create many laws to protect women from domestic violence, but they don’t stop men from their desire to oppress and abuse women. We can adopt policies to promote equality in the workplace, but they don’t silence the thoughts and desires of those who feel entitled to control others. We can penalize institutions to curb racism, but those penalties only inflame deep-seated resentment. It’s zero-sum thinking. It swings the pendulum in one direction rather than stilling the pendulum altogether.
Laws might protect, but they don’t change hearts.
In spite of the many statutes in the United States, there is still hidden resentment towards the “other,” whether it is the “other” sex, race, religion, or nationality. Laws don’t consider how people’s experiences have conditioned them to respond and act in a conditioned way. Laws might be a quick fix for the problem, but they don’t address the systemic issue that caused it. Laws might protect, but they don’t change hearts.
If we’re coerced into adopting a particular perspective, it doesn’t change our mind, let alone our heart. In fact, it might make us more and more resistant to change. We’ll always be able to take a deep dive into the Internet to find someone who agrees with us. Because our hearts and minds are suppressed or oppressed, more powder gets packed into the keg.
When we encounter conflict, or even the need to reach an agreement, we have to approach things differently. We must consider the experience and motivation of others. It requires empathic listening.
Stephen Covey’s book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” considers empathic listening as one of the pillars of living with others. Rather than demanding to be heard, we listen. Many times, he writes, we listen to respond rather than listen to truly hear.
"And we’ll never get to the problem if we’re so caught up in our own autobiography, our own paradigms, that we don’t take off our glasses long enough to see the world from another point of view."
If we go around life only seeking to win, everyone loses.
We so badly want to get our point across, assuming that we are in the right and the other is wrong. If we approach every conflict with “You’re wrong,” we’re not listening to hear. We’re just waiting for an opportunity to “prove” we’re right. We approach our conversation with the need to win rather than the need to cooperate. If we go around life only seeking to win, everyone loses. Everyone.
With empathic listening, we have conversation. We listen to the experiences that shaped the other person’s perspective. We recognize that not everyone sees and hears things the same. Remember the gold/blue dress? Remember Yanny/Laurel? People divided into “teams,” insisting that they were “right,” but they found out later that the answer was “both.”
Covey suggests that we approach conflict with the understanding of human dignity, which might mean softening our rigid, conditioned perspectives.
"The key is to genuinely seek the welfare of the individual, to listen with empathy, to let the person get to the problem and the solution at his own pace and time. Layer upon layer — it’s like peeling an onion until you get to the soft inner core."
It leaves us vulnerable, naked, but that’s where hearts can be moved.
Empathic listening does require one thing — empathy. It’s about considering the perspectives and experiences of others before we act and speak. It’s recognizing that everything isn’t about us. It’s about listening and connecting with the heart. It’s about finding ways to connect with others on a deeper, human level. It’s awakening the deeper sensitivities within ourselves so that we can awaken the sensitivities in others. It leaves us vulnerable, naked, but that’s where hearts can be moved.
Randy knew at that moment he couldn’t change that man’s mind. But he knew that he could get the man to stop for a moment and consider his mama.
This post was previously published on Medium.