I remember when I first discovered the need for empathy in politics. I was 16 years old in high school having a discussion about abortion when one of my friends, Grace, explained to me why it should be a choice whether to keep a child or not. She laid out several examples which connected me emotionally to her perspective, enabling me for the first time to actually absorb the reality that there was another viable perspective on the same political issue.
Fast forward eight years and this is now an essential part of what I do for my career as a science communicator. I have come to the complete realization that political issues are complex and in many cases suffer from human oversimplification through reductionism as well as lack of empathy and open-mindedness. How can one possibly reduce a political issue like Healthcare that has thousands of variables to either being in favor of universal care or privatized care? There are now 7.5 billion perspectives to take into account, minus the ~two billion perspectives between the ages of 0–14 that are too young to have enough life experience to make a decision on the subject matter.
“How can one possibly reduce a political issue like Healthcare that has thousands of variables to either being in favor of universal care or privatized care?”
In order to better understand this, one must be willing to ask empowering questions, show genuine empathy, and take in thousands of perspectives. Think about the last time you met someone new. Rather than asking surface level questions, take a deep dive into their life journey. Here are some of my favorite empowering questions: “What are you passionate about?”, “What impact do you want to make in the universe?”, and “What was the last thing you did that scared you?” Asking these types of questions enables stronger connection between people but it cannot be done without genuine empathy, which is best explained by LifeHacker in The Importance of Empathy.
Understanding what life experiences led someone to their current worldview leads to cross cultural conversations that take stock of people’s specific personal and historical contexts. A crucial part of this process is recognizing the types of answers different people give, and building a more developed worldview. As an example, what do Chinese or German people think of Healthcare? What do Baby Boomers or Millennials think? What does someone with cancer or someone that’s completely healthy think of Healthcare? How do people from different descents, age groups, and life experiences approach the thousands of variables that go into making Healthcare decisions? How are their perspectives formed over time?
Doing all of this leads to becoming a maverick.
A maverick is a freethinker. A nonconformist exuding eccentric behaviors like walking down the path very few take in order to come up with novel ideas very few have thought. Their free-spirited perspectives typically form over decades of analyzing thousands of different perspectives, variables, and critically thinking to create unique solution propositions to complex political and nonpolitical issues. To maximize one’s success as a maverick, training emotional intelligence skills like empathy and open-mindedness are major keys, as is training polymath skills like wide-ranging learning.
“A maverick is a freethinker. A nonconformist exuding eccentric behaviors like walking down the path very few take in order to come up with novel ideas very few have thought.”
When we take time to slow down to understand the breadth of possible perspectives, how could we possibly be so rushed to believe our perspective is right? In the illustration above, you can see the true magnitude of how difficult it is to become a maverick by understanding thousands of perspectives and variables that go into a political issue. Mavericks challenge themselves by being comfortable with the uncomfortable. They show people vulnerability by expressing unguarded openness to another’s perspective and by being genuinely interested in learning about how this person came to believe what they do today.
The task is a call to action, a challenge: Challenge yourself to learn from people who have different perspectives than you. This may be as simple as asking your parents what their opinion is on Healthcare. Or asking your friend why they voted a certain way. Or propose a political empathy exercise in your next hangout with friends. For five minutes you pair off in groups of two — preferably with the person in the room you know least — and have each person pass two minutes explaining their perspective on Healthcare while the other listens without judgement, with just the intention to understand. Another example: When was the last time you learned what the current economic situation is like in Djibouti or Senegal? Sometimes all it takes is asking an empowering question or two to the person that’s driving the Uber you’re riding in to learn about a perspective you’ve never heard of before.
I’m sure many of us witnessed conversations during the 2016 US presidential campaigns where it seemed like people with differing perspectives on a political issue weren’t actually listening to one another. Neither party was asking empowering questions. Neither party was showing genuine understanding. They were just both waiting for the other person to finish talking so they could have their turn. In the future when you catch yourself in this situation, try what my friend John and I call the empathy check. Interrupt the conversation and ask each person to summarize what the other person’s perspective is on the issue they are discussing. If they can do it, give them high fives! If they can’t, help them better understand how to ask empowering questions, genuinely empathize, and truly learn the perspective of the person they are conversing with.
If you genuinely attempt to increase your understanding of different perspectives, there is more love, compassion, goodwill, and equanimity for all. It is enlightening to learn from a seemingly never-ending array of diverse global perspectives, in all their contradictions and negotiations. By asking people empowering questions and showing genuine empathy as we learn from their perspective, the feeling of mutual growth we receive is unparalleled. It must start with a humble acknowledgment that our perspective isn’t the only perspective and that we have not taken into account the thousands of variables that go into complex political issues. Without this immersion into thousands of perspectives and variables, we cannot rationally form solidified opinions. It truly takes decades of analysis.
“It is enlightening to learn from a seemingly never-ending array of diverse global perspectives, in all their contradictions and negotiations.”
Becoming a maverick may just be the right recipe for resolving the growing problems of political polarization and cognitive dissonance. Practice learning from people with different perspectives. Analyze more of the variables that go into these complex political issues. Ask empowering questions, show genuine empathy, build trust with people, and change the way we experience global politics forever.
Looking back at ‘high school Allen’ eight years ago, I’m so grateful for Grace’s story and the emotional connection to her perspective. It induced empathy and humility in me at an important point in my life. I’m so grateful that I started to absorb different perspectives back then and that I didn’t just start now. This experience has helped catalyze a tremendous amount of success in me today and I challenge us all to build a world where young people, even as young as elementary school, aim to learn from one another’s perspectives — feeling empowered to bring their stories together, making a more empathetic world.