Using empathy to make sense of our complicated world

In situations of opposing viewpoints, we generally assume that we must either accept or reject the other’s story, and if we accept theirs, we must abandon our own. But the truth is we don’t have to choose one or the other.

Applying Empathy

We can embrace both stories by adopting the And Stance (Harvard Negotiation Project). The And Stance is based on the idea that you can feel hurt, angry and wronged, and they can feel just as hurt, angry and wronged. The And Stance allows you to recognize that how each perspective sees things matters — as do the feelings behind each perspective. Let’s put this into context:

How could Martin Luther King Jr, a pacifist, envy a war general?

A pacifist may have the stance that peace can be achieved without violence and war is not necessary, while the general may believe that violence is absolutely necessary to maintain peace and order. So who is right? With application of the And Stance, we don’t choose which viewpoint is right, but rather recognize, value, and embrace BOTH stories.

“I do not judge him by my principles, I judge him by his own.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.

MLK recognized the validity of both perspectives, and appreciated the war general’s passion, commitment, and expertise — characteristics that can be found enviable regardless of purpose.

Going Deeper

It is possible that the differing personas have been achieved with influence from their past experiences.

“Often it is only in the context of someone’s past experience that we can understand why what they are saying or doing makes any kind of sense.”

It could very well be that the early childhood trauma that MLK endured paved the road for his non-violent philosophy — and it very well be that the war general came to that course with influence from witnessing his family experiencing a home invasion and armed robbery when he was a child. It is possible that a correlation can be made between the specific previous events and a later mindset, but at the same time “Often we aren’t even aware of how these experiences affect our interpretation of the world” (Difficult Conversations. D. Stone, B. Patton, S. Heen. 2010).

By viewing the issue from the general’s perspective, MLK is able to make sense of the world where war is a necessary evil. His understanding of the war general’s belief system does not negate his own outlook, nor does it mean his stance will change or even be swayed — and he can still maintain that pacifism is a more valid philosophy.

Moving Forward

This anecdote is impossibly relevant in our current state of intolerance for differing points of view. It seems we either share our voice proudly in the face of opposing perspectives — to the result of combat, or drive holders of minority viewpoints underground to only communicate with those who share the same beliefs — promoting radicalization, again leading to combat.

In a recent LinkedIn conversation, Steven Forth noted his deep concern with the ways in which people with different world views are communicating (or more accurately, failing to communicate) with each other. He proposed: Can we apply design thinking to improve conversations between people with deeply opposed views?

I believe so. As Empathize is the first stage of the design thinking process, let’s position the And Stance as the first stage in improving these difficult circumstances.