As the 1965 song reminds us, “what the world needs now is love…not just for some but for everyone.”
The challenge today is to ask ourselves, “Can we show love towards everyone?”
Can you love someone who has beliefs very different from yours, someone who has hurt you, someone who is a stranger? Wholeheartedly answering “yes” is difficult because love seems to be restricted to close relationships. Indeed, we expect romantic partners and family members to love each other. But loving a stranger—that isn’t love.
Is it possible to love someone who is very different from you? Oops, maybe we shouldn’t have put that person into the box of “different”. Even seeing someone as different, and judging that person as “the other” has already put a limit on your ability to love. For loving another means identifying commonalities and recognizing our common humanity. Someone may look, think, or act differently than you do but that person’s feelings are no different from your own. So, a connection can be built by recognizing the feelings that are behind the thoughts and actions. A loving response then lets the other person know you recognize these feelings.
Love that goes beyond close relations to strangers and even to all of humanity means responding with understanding rather than judgment. Seeing another person through your eyes often involves judging that person. Seeing another person through their eyes leads to understanding that person. You begin to feel what the other person is feeling, to have empathy and to tell that person what you are experiencing when you are seeing through their eyes. An empathetic connection is the essence of love and it can be created with anyone.
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 That 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 empathic 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. We connect through acknowledging our common human needs and fears.
The empathic 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
Rogers, C. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology21, 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.