How to Engage with Compassion with people that think differently to us

We’ve all been there. A colleague. A friend. Maybe even a family member – espouse something different to what we think. It’s a challenge. In the past I’ve been guilty of dismissing them as stupid or ignorant.

The last few years have shown me, it was I that was stupid and ignorant.

Mainly because I’ve been able to correlate what I see with what I do, instead of pretending that what I see is simply an observation of the outside world.

To recognize something in another – is impossible to do without having that trait. Not something I want to admit. Truth is, I have the capacity to be a bigot, a misogynist, a racist in any given moment. We all do. We’re human. Does it define who I am or how I behave every day? Definitely not! But to sit here and pretend I can’t be any of those is disingenuous and defeats the purpose of the title of this article.

A good place to start is embracing that no one is morally superior to anyone. Ever.

It’s a complex world. Even siblings growing up in the same household with similar experiences can turn out drastically different. I’ve softened my approach by asking the question ‘If I was born elsewhere in the world, would I still believe this?’

Religion is the easiest example to use here. A Christian may have views about Hindus, but would they hold that same view if they were born in India – would they still be Christian? Sadly, my subconscious reaction is usually to justify my position is the right one.

Maybe it’s related to the reason most of us avoid change: It’s hard.

Is it solvable?

I love solving problems and to solve one, I must understand it.

While news media and social platforms tell us how divided and polarized we are, a recent Harvard Study showed “80% of Americans are “happy” to engage in conversations with those with opposing views in the future if the conditions are right”

Whew… that’s a huge relief. If that figure were under 50%, I’d be worried.

It’s pretty tough to solve issues if half the population won’t even engage with you. Mercifully, that’s not the barrier – so what is?

Social media provides instant wide-net access to anybody’s opinions – often with no context. Think about racism. How many racists have engaged with the group they despise? To this point I suggest listening to a blues musician Daryl Davis talk about his first experience with the KKK.

No one would falter him for avoiding an overtly racist and anti-Semitic group, yet he chose the opposite. He uncomfortably engaged them using deeper questions with the intention to understand them. Conversation was his weapon, and he’s since assisted about 200 Klan members to leave.

 ‘’I never set out to convert anyone in the Klan. I just set out to get an answer to my question: ‘How can you hate me when you don’t even know me? They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them.”

I love that.

‘They come to their own conclusion’

That’s how we create long lasting change. Shaming someone into action creates acting. Inspiring someone into action creates change – Daryl exemplifies this to a T.

If a black man can sit with a Klan member – I can sit with anyone with an opposing view to mine.

How can we implement this?

Some intellectual humility on my part is a good start. Next, instead of allowing knee-jerk reactions to dominate my decision making, I ask questions like ‘how much more information could there be?’ The recent decommissioning of Dr Seuss books is a great example.

My first reaction was disdain for rampant cancel culture and wokeism once again going too far. Thing is – my reaction was based purely off a headline. I had no idea if this decision was an internal one – or external pressure. If it was one book – or all or all of them. I didn’t even know the reason why.

*Sigh

I have a long way to go to override my subconscious rampaging elephant, but one falter isn’t a reason to give up trying.

Writing this helps me see how valuable this test was to recognize how quickly it happens and how to catch myself. I now know it’s only six books that won’t be reprinted and it was Dr Seuss Enterprises decision.

“The company says the decision was made last year, in an effort to support “all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship”

My initial reaction was wrong. Ouch. Owning up to mistakes and being wrong is hard – but it’s a great ally in becoming a better human and growing.

Thankfully, I recently heard Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist based in New York, interviewed about Can a divided America heal. Besides insightful, it introduced me to their free resource OpenMind, helping people overcome bias. It was illuminating to hear why it’s easier to witness bias around me or in others, than it is within myself.

OpenMind’s program, as their website says, is “A scalable, evidence-based approach to constructive dialogue. Our learning tools equip people with the mindset and skillset to communicate constructively across differences.”

The perfect tool to build our skills. This is akin to climbing up a treacherous mountain for the first time. I can do it alone and get lost and frustrated, or use a professional guide to take me and save time – and make every step enjoyable and prevent me from giving up.

I’ve just completed the individuals course which I cannot recommend enough! OpenMind also has courses for Academics, Workplace, and Community & religious organizations. There are eight sections of 30 minutes each as well as four 45-minute interactions to practice discussions with a partner.  

As Daryl says, there’s a difference between being stupid and ignorant – and by understanding my own bias I can certainly change my interactions by bringing curiosity back into subjects I have little knowledge. Let’s be honest, with our access to all information from all over the world all the time, we’re bound to have some disagreements with friends and family.

We have an information surplus, but a lack of wisdom. Experts like Jonathan guide our journey to become more compassionate communicators across differing backgrounds, beliefs, and values.

Here’s the outline of their course:

There’s hope

No matter how polarizing the topic – I believe there is always common ground to understand one another’s position and be more compassionate with a view different to mine. We won’t agree on everything and that’s okay – there are tools available to empower ourselves for these situations.

The important thing is to focus on what is the end result we ultimately want?

For example, can we all agree that every child should be taught to read and be educated? Great! Let’s focus on how we make that possible, instead of getting stuck in disagreements about the cause of the problem. It’s certainly important to recognize mistakes so as not to repeat them – but collaborating on how to achieve this, is the best way forward to maximize efficient use of resources.

If we get stuck, a great question to ask is ‘would the children and parents care about this topic?’ – if the answer is ‘no’ – we’ve strayed off the purpose and objective we’re pursuing. Is this discussion serving the purpose of our shared objective?

And the better I become at this? The better I communicate with others; the more I break the cycle of automatic responses and build a bridge with compassion and understanding.

I hope you’ll take that next step on this continuous journey with me, and share this with someone you think will benefit.


2 thoughts on “How to Engage with Compassion with people that think differently to us

  1. Thank you Andrew, this is such a wake up call, as you say, we all in some way think we are morally superior , I hang my head in shame to realise that I too need some major help to communicate more clearly with the end of understanding and compassion in mind.

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    1. I don’t believe you need to hang your head in shame – the very fact you can recognize room to grow shows you’re aware now, so start with being compassionate with yourself and I have no doubt that will flow into your communication with others

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