“What the world needs now is love …. Not just for some, but for everyone.”
Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote that song in 1965, when the United States was involved in the Vietnam War. Are we at war again now, 53 years later, not overseas, but at home?
Well, we do have a war of words and actions directed at demolishing others. Oh, “others”? Even characterizing another person as “the other” creates division. It becomes all too easy to become divided into camps of “us versus them”. So, let’s try again…we have a war of words and actions that obscures our common humanity.
When our primary source of news switched from newspapers to social media, we entered a “post-truth world” in which people read, listen, and watch what they agree with, not what challenges their preconceptions. Isolation from different points of view, different values, different customs all entrenches us in our preconceptions.
Most of our preconceptions are based on gaining or maintaining power over another group of people. For example, if we read on our social media sites that blue people who come to the United States are free-loaders we will probably not be exposed to news about the blue people who contribute to our society. We then can maintain our previous prejudice and see “them” as not as good as “us”. Furthermore, if we exclude blue people from our social groups, we can associate only with people with the same belief, thereby solidifying our belief.
What, then, might heal these divisions and antipathies?
Love is what the world needs now. But can we love someone who thinks differently, acts differently, and looks different? There is a way to do this and it is called “empathy”.
To have empathy for another person means setting aside our evaluations of that person. Then we actively listen to the other person’s thoughts and feelings and acknowledge we heard them.1 This doesn’t mean we agree with the other person, just that we understand where that person is coming from and tell that person that we do.
When we are viewing another person with empathy, we have momentarily let go of our defenses. And when we acknowledge the other person’s thoughts and feelings it disarms him/her. Defenses are not needed by either party, so better communication and cooperation can emerge.
A loving empathy has been used even to defuse conflict between groups of people.2 The surprising fact is that both parties do not have to show empathy initially. It only takes one person or group to start the process of empathetic communication. And then empathy begets empathy.3
Through empathy, then, we have the power to connect with others at a level that is deeper than attitudes and beliefs. When we truly listen to the other person, we see the other person’s humanity beyond our previous preconceptions. No longer is there a power struggle of us versus them. There are just two human beings willing to listen to each other, heart to heart, without judgment. Then we can connect through acknowledging our common human needs, feelings, and fears.
The empathetic approach to relationships is backed by evidence that it works—it works to neutralize power differences and tensions.4 Empathy is a viable alternative to our present way of seizing and using power. It is a quiet revolution.5
(Notice how old the references below are and, yet, we still have not implemented them throughout our society.)
- Rogers, C. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology 21, 95-103.
- Rogers, C., and Sanford, R. (1987). Reflections on our South African experience. Counseling and Values (Special issue on Carl Rogers and the person-centered approach to peace) 32, 17-20.
- Feshbach, N.D. & Feshbach, S. (1982). Empathy training and the regulation of aggression: Potentialities and limitations. Academic Psychology Bulletin, 4, 399-413.
- Rogers, C. R., and Sanford, R. (1987). Inside the world of the Soviet professional. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 27, 277-304.
- Rogers, C. (1977). On personal power: Inner strength and its revolutionary impact. New York: Delacorte Press.