Listening with Empathy

By Maurice Campbell ’21

(Photo Credit: Andrew Harnik/AP)

What would happen if cops across the United States stopped and listened to Black communities or vice versa? What would happen if President Donald Trump were an advocate of listening with empathy? I define empathy as the ability to step into another person’s shoes, understand their viewpoints and feelings, and to use that understanding to guide actions. 


Some of the problems in our country—involving police brutality, institutional racism, and the current pandemic—could be solved if everyone were more empathetic and discussed their problems, rather than pretending like they don’t exist. There are a lot of problems in today’s society, and listening with empathy can’t solve them all, but it could be a start to multiple solutions. Let’s take institutional racism as an example. Institutional racism is immersed in daily life in today’s society. There comes a time in every Black person’s life when they are told by someone who isn’t Black that they are “well-spoken” or “articulate.” Instead of people being defensive and making it clear that they aren’t racist when a Black person intervenes and tells you what was said is racist, whoever said the aforementioned remark should take the time to listen and understand why.


Another example where people can listen with empathy is during the plight of this pandemic. If people were to wear masks and take precautionary measures whenever they leave their houses and obey social distancing guidelines, the country could potentially tackle COVID-19 within a couple of months. But, because people choose not to listen, the pandemic that we are unfortunately living in may take longer than usual to overcome, and it will take longer than usual to resume what we used to consider “normal” life. 


The global pandemic has caused many families to spend more quality time together, which has led to more valuable discussions. While having multiple discussions with my family, one topic I brought up was their formulas for success in life. Both of my parents have type-A personalities; they want the very best for me and my sister. They go beyond their normal calls of duty to provide us with the best economic and emotional support. I was intrigued as to how two independent thinkers with strong personalities co-exist. When I posed this question to my parents, my mother responded with a joke. 


There was a couple that was married for over 75 years, and they were the talk of the town. The local newspaper did a story on their longevity and wanted to learn about their formula for marital success. The husband told the reporter that on their honeymoon, they went on a horseback riding excursion down the Grand Canyon. A quarter-mile down the trail, the horse threw his wife off and she landed awkwardly on her hip. She got up and sternly, she said, “That’s one.” She got back on the horse, and a half mile later, the horse did it again. She got up, got back on the horse, and in an extremely stern way, she said, “That’s two.” Another mile down the trail, the horse did it again. This time she bruised her hip. She went in her bag, pulled out a 9-millimeter Glock, and shot the horse 5 times in the head. The husband screamed at his wife and asked why she committed such a horrendous act. He continued to chastise her. The wife turned around, looked at her husband sternly and said in the most serious tone, “That’s one.” Since then, they have been married for over 75 years.


My father had a different and more thought-provoking response, which pertained to how we can fix the current racial and pandemic plights in America today. He said their formula for a successful 25-year marriage is that they listen to each other with empathy. In a marriage, there will always be misunderstandings and confusion, which leads to disagreements. Disagreements could lead to very candid and useful discussions, and neither of them shies away from having these difficult discussions. My dad proceeded to say that what he tends to do is listen to my mother with empathy. He said that if something is bothering her, and she is frustrated, it is his responsibility to stop and understand how she is feeling. Is she feeling frustrated? Is she feeling angry? Is she feeling sad? And after he understands how she is feeling, he has to mirror it back to her and acknowledge her feelings. He does not provide any guidance or provide her with how to deal with it, as that will only make the situation worse. I asked about the mirroring back process, and he said, “Mommy, I understand you must feel angry, frustrated, etc. because of….” And once she acknowledges how she is feeling, he knows how to proceed with asking how he could guide to help her stop feeling frustrated, angry, or annoyed. My dad believes that most of the time this method works. 


Listening with empathy takes discipline, but it appears to work in my family. I truly believe it is transferable to solving America’s current plights: racial injustices and a pandemic. Currently, we are at a point in history where empathy can help us to grow individually and as a country. Empathy will help us cooperate with one another, build upon our friendships, make moral decisions, and step in when we see others being bullied instead of being a bystander. Empathy will not solve all of the world’s current problems, but it could be a good start to a solution for most of them.

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