Cultivate Empathy: Understanding Others’ Perspectives Even When You Disagree

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In a divisive world, we must learn to cultivate empathy. It is harder and harder to avoid coming into conflicts with friends and family. Even if you choose not to argue, hearing people speak passionately against your beliefs becomes disheartening. You might even feel alienated at times. It seems that people are becoming simultaneously more passionate and more polarized in their beliefs and opinions. When this happens, when we begin to see others as “one of us” or “one of them,” we end up isolating, feeling empty, and sacrificing a chance to grow through the acknowledgement of another’s perspective. We are losing the ability to understand and be understood in a world of conflicts both personal and virtual.

What is missing here is context and empathy. Each and every person has a unique context which helps inform and shape the way he/she sees the world and behaves in it. We want so badly for people to understand where we are coming from, but we are becoming less willing to do the same for others. In order to attempt to enter into these spaces of conflict and lack of understanding, there are three perspectives to take into account: the normative perspective, existential perspective, and situational perspective. John Frame and Vern Poythress’s “Multiperspectival” or “Triperspectival” created this approach.

The Facts (Normative Perspective)

The normative perspective is one that usually comes the most naturally when considering someone else’s position. It contains the objective facts of a situation, how things “ought” to be, what is right and wrong, all conforming to the structure and expectations of society. We tend to analyze and consider the thoughts and opinions of others objectively, setting out logically why they should or shouldn’t think the way they do, while also presenting an objective, logical argument from our own perspective. However, no argument or opinion is as  black-and-white as this. Whenever humans are involved, pure objectivity is impossible and therefore the nuances and complexity of being a human must be considered. Think of this as the “facts present” in any given case. With counseling as our example, this would be what behaviors or situations you might bring into the session, not your feelings, but what objectively took place.

The Feelings (Existential Perspective)

The existential perspective is always lurking underneath the well-reasoned arguments. This is why arguments become heated: we care enough to engage because there are emotions and personal experiences attached. Essentially, the existential perspective encompasses these emotions and personal experiences. Because humans are complex, no event or opinion is isolated or totally objective; just about everything contains some sort of emotional weight or context. And contrary to popular belief, emotions do not make opinions or arguments less viable. We must resist the temptation to consider our own emotions as acceptable and others’ as unacceptable or disqualifying. We can tend to see emotions and logic as unable to exist together, but both are extremely important. The integration and balance of both is more than possible. From our previous counseling example, think of this as the feelings you as the client have surrounding certain events, your subjective thoughts.

The Context (Situational Perspective)

The situational perspective informs each of the other perspectives in powerful ways, but can be the most often overlooked. It takes into account the history, environment, and context of a person or situation. Unless you know literally everything about the person you’re dialoguing with (which you won’t), it is likely that aspects of their history or environment which you know  nothing about strongly influence the way they view and experience the world.  They may have had first-hand experience with the issue, and that experience may have been emotionally-charged (either positively or negatively). Additionally, even what we may consider to be historical “fact” is not always as cut-and-dry as we would like to believe. Differences in culture may result in differences in interpreting the “facts” of history. Context is so important for understanding others, but it can also be so easy to overlook and ignore. Turning again to our example, we see that a your mental health history provides valuable insight into what is happening in your life  and how you are perceiving things. As in, a person who has a history of abuse may seem  sensitive to others who do not understand abuse firsthand.

So What..?

You have a structure for understanding the threefold perspectives of others, so what? Start by getting to know the people you disagree with. Ask about these perspectives. If they become angry, don’t capitalize on their emotions or mock them. Acknowledge their anger and ask gently for some clarification or context. Say something like, “It seems like you have a lot of anger around this topic. Help me understand where you’re coming from.” This doesn’t mean that you agree with them or stop the conversation. It means you look beyond being right and focus on understanding them and their opinion more comprehensively. This  approach will actually go much further in opening their mind to your opinion as well. The less you attempt to understand one another, the more entrenched you will each become in your own opinions. However, lead with curiosity. Maybe they will follow suit and the conversation will end in you knowing and understanding each other better. You might even become better friends.Laura Lanier Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern

If you are struggling with understanding or being understood by others, I would love to talk with you about how to cultivate empathy and how to cope with being misunderstood. You can contact me at 940-222-8703 x705 or [email protected]services, or schedule an appointment online!

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