I’ve been enjoying and slightly overwhelmed by my new Public Health class: Global and Environmental Health Issues in equal measure. I was surprised by the info on systems thinking, which makes complete sense when you’re thinking in terms of ecology, I just hadn’t expected to encounter it and I’m very pleased to learn more about it. My favourite quote so far has been from the Global Health Ethics video by Greg Martin:
If you want me to take your argument seriously, you need to show me that you can argue the counter-factual. If you can’t, then it’s likely that you’ve taken an unthinking, dogmatic position based on some sort of knee jerk philosophical reaction that you had, and you really need to take a closer look at the other side of the argument.Greg Martin
This made me extremely happy to hear because I’m often frustrated with people’s unwillingness or incapacity to consider opinions they disagree with (even when I disagree with those opinions too). I’m especially concerned at the way this is at times used as a kind of badge of honor that the wrong ideas are so wrong and illogical and irrational they can’t be even comprehended by sane and sensible people like us. Our failures of empathy and imagination are not a merit, nor are they proof against being wrong! Many opinions that are awfully wrong have excellent merit from particular perspectives. Moreover being able to deeply empathise and understand other perspectives is a crucial step to being able to engage them.
Understanding the building blocks of ideas and beliefs – the experiences people are extrapolating from, the accepted wisdom of the experts they trust, and why they are trusted, the logical fallacies we are all so vulnerable to, and often the ideas start to become less incomprehensible and outrageous. Your own ideas are formed in exactly the same ways, which is worth keeping in mind. We are all highly fallible, and we all extrapolate from personal experience and are vulnerable to bias. It’s not unusual, it’s the human condition, however diverse the result. We all share similar processes in how we develop and defend our beliefs, even astonishingly unlikely or dangerously untrue ones that may be experienced in psychosis. The mechanisms and interplay of knowledge, experience, and emotion are surprisingly standard. We have more in common than we think, which can be an uncomfortable thought. It’s far easier to remain baffled by opinions you hate and the people who hold them than it is to acknowledge common ground and genuinely ask “why do they believe that?” – whether we’re taking about someone with opposite political beliefs or “crazy” paranoia. The unsettling reality isn’t how diverse we are, it’s how similar the underlying mechanisms of our beliefs are. We build our ‘sanity’ with the same blocks that also build ‘craziness’ and ‘wrongness’.
The heart of being able to listen and learn like this is a concept I think is best summed up by the phrase “Listening to Understand”. It’s an empathetic stance, but that doesn’t mean it’s mindless – to the contrary the more complex or different the ideas, the more you’ll need to be able to think carefully to reconstruct the framework you’re hearing. It’s not listening to find differences to debate, or even common ground to connect with. It aims to leave unchanged whatever is presented, but to simply and deeply comprehend it and be able to articulate it.
This type of listening is a profound tool to have in your communication kit. It’s an essential aspect of community engagement, research, interviews, and relationship. In formal settings it’s often needed to be able to translate and transport opinions into other spaces, such as understanding why people believe and behave the way they do when you’re trying to design a health intervention, training, or policy. Failures of empathy are behind many failed efforts in governance. When we do not truly understand an issue our best intended efforts are often half effective at best, and may be horribly harmful instead.
In teaching, this empathetic engagement is crucial to bridge the gaps between what people know now and what are trying to teach. Education is far more than imparting information, it is often about a process of shifting frameworks and belief systems. Long after the facts have faded the mindsets and beliefs remain. Poor quality education neither knows nor cares what the current knowledge and beliefs are, it simply imposes over the top. This is why so much cultural awareness training fails, it is underfunded, too brief, and places heavy burdens of understanding bigotry and the ignorance of privilege onto those who suffer the worst consequences of it. It is experienced by those forced to sit through it as a set of new behavior rules and rejected as “PC” thought policing because there so little time and capacity to empathically bridge what the beliefs are now, with the ones you are hoping to instill.
In informal settings it’s about having a more informed perspective on the people around us. We all make assumptions constantly about what’s going on inside each other, what we really think and feel and why we do what we do. We have to do this in order to predict each other and function socially. Far too often when it comes to divides of belief we defend our own perspectives by staying willfully unaware of what and why others think as they do. This failure of empathy means we often set up strawmen not as a deliberate strategy but simply because we’ve failed to grasp the real position of the other person.
This approach of listening to understand is tough in everyday life when we’re trying to have relationships with people who have vastly different and at times flat out incorrect ideas. It takes a special capacity to listen closely and be willing to be unsettled by the internal logic of others’ ideas to begin to understand why people think, feel, believe, and behave the ways they do. It’s also very humanizing and can connect us across divides. It can also unmask narcissism and predatory behaviour that hides in the imitation of caring words but is revealed by patterns of behaviour where people are harmed and discarded.
Being able to listen this way to people very close to us creates opportunities to be seen and heard and validated. It bypasses the trap of ‘who is right’ and moves instead into wanting to get inside the other’s perspective and really understand it. It shows how limited our internal models of each really are, however well we feel we know someone, the real person is always more nuanced and complex. There’s always things we don’t know, influences we hadn’t considered, conclusions we weren’t aware of. Particularly in long term relationships, we often feel secure that we really ‘know’ each other, and more and more we relate to (and argue with) the version of them that lives in our mind. This erodes connection. Being willing to suspend that certainty and deeply listen can profoundly change the context of your relationship.
Empathy is essential to authenticity. It emerges through a range of capacities – being able to hold a range of contradictory beliefs in your mind at the same time, being able to hold your own perspective lightly enough to genuinely seek to understand another, and firmly enough to integrate new knowledge and experiences without losing your own. Polyphony – the willingness to allow multiple voices and perspectives to exist without requiring consensus, is profoundly helpful. Every experience and conversation we have is adding to our own frameworks and beliefs in ways we are often not aware of. The heart of the work for me isn’t just this willingness to accept I may be wrong, and a lack of fear of exploring other beliefs, it’s also about being able to bridge a fundamental tension in how I see other people. There is both a profound diversity, and an underlying common ground to being human. Empathy emerges when we hold these in tension with compassion.