Trying on other ways of looking at the world: perspective taking, non-judgment & empathy

empathy Feb 04, 2016

Photo credit: midlifemomentsdotme

We live in a dichotomous world. A world where we divide and polarize issues and people as either “for” or “against”. A world where the “haves” and the “have nots” get further and further apart. A world where those with power struggle mightily to hold on to it, and those without, demand a voice. It is also a world where the opportunity to connect, collaborate and cooperate is increasingly growing, and where many people are naming what isn’t working and calling for an end to broken systems, structures and ways of being in the world.

I’m a firm believer that the ability to understand another perspective, especially one vastly different than yours, is key to finding solutions and moving forward in ways that reflect the collective good. The practices of perspective taking, non-judgment and empathy are key to this change-making way of being and working.

However — saying that is much easier than living it.

I believe that we EACH must play a role in living this way. This isn’t platitudes about what OTHERS should do, but a way of being that allows EACH of us to show up fully and compassionately and contribute to the world we want.

I wrote a blog last month about my new year’s afformation to take more acts of courage, big and small. To me, those acts of courage include consciously trying new and different ways of thinking. In that blog, I talked about my New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim. What I didn’t share then was how I experienced the lead-up to that swim. The swim was a fundraiser for cancer research, and there were a number of speeches before we dove into the river. One of those speeches was from the City Councillor that represents my ward; Mark Taylor. Mark gave a speech that went something like this (I’m going from memory here):

  • Look at all the men and boys here! All of you guys have got big balls! Those balls give you the courage to do this crazy swim, and raise money for a good cause. Then, looking around the room and seeing women, he added, I have a wife and daughter, and I think women have even bigger stones than you guys! It takes really big balls to do this crazy stuff! And then he went on to say what a good cause it was, and that he too was swimming.

I looked at my 19 and 10 year old daughters and thought “Good grief — no wonder women don’t run for public office. What a message to send them — that they are only brave if act like they have testicles. That only men are courageous.” I looked at my 17 year old son and husband and thought, “These are men who think we can ALL be brave —and I can’t imagine them saying anything like this.”

Didn’t our Prime Minister say “Because it’s 2015.” when asked why he appointed a 50/50 gender split in his cabinet? How was this speech by a City Councillor OK by any current standard?

Photo credit: Global News

In the spirit of acts of courage, I’ve been trying to figure out a different way of looking at this situation. I thought about writing an irate letter to the editor of the local paper. I thought about sending a letter to the Councillor’s office demanding he explain himself. I thought about outing him as sexist on twitter. I thought about a blog that targeted his behaviour as abhorrent, backward and unacceptable. But none of these things fit with who I am and how I want to be in this world. And, having been the target of some of these things myself, I think “public shaming” is a sport we should play less of. So that is NOT my intent here. My goal is to think through how do we move from our outrage and judgment to something constructive and positive, and do it WITH others?

So I tried first to think of him as a WHOLE person, made up of more than these comments.I don’t know a lot about this Councillor, but I believe he works hard for my ward. He has championed a number of key initiatives, is responsive to the community, and lives and breathes the community he lives in — and grew up in. I think being a City Councillor is often a thankless task, where you are judged harshly. He has a family, and I can only imagine he wants the very best for them.

I did some research about him, and learned that in addition to working hard for my ward and championing key City-wide issues like homelessness and housing and a plan for older adults, he spent a larger amount of taxpayer funds on branding himself as the Deputy Mayor than others in that role, and has had his election finances referred to court. In the interests of looking at the situation in a non-judgmental way, I think about this as the “He is Human — and we all make mistakes or have challenges” perspective.

I thought it might serve me to look at the situation from one other angle. So I reflected on that tent where we all stood shivering before we dove into the frozen river. The tent was full of people, but by observation, I would say probably 70% of swimmers were male. And many of those were dressed as super heroes, vikings or carried tridents or other warrior type props. The event was designed to be an opportunity to demonstrate a physical act of courage. The Councillor’s role was to engage the crowd and get them excited. I wonder if he looked around the room and saw a sea of mostly male faces, and felt a sense of familiarity from sport, locker rooms or other all male activities he had been part of in the past. Maybe that sense of familiarity meant he didn’t reflect on his choice of language or words, and instead just spoke from the heart, in a way he felt would connect him to the group. Perhaps he was moved by the courage and the cause, and wanted to be accepted by the crowd. I think about this as the “I’m one of you, please accept me” perspective. And that helped me think of the times I’ve likely said things with good intentions, that could have offended or hurt others, because I wanted to be connected to a group.

In thinking about the situation — and the individual involved — and trying with care and reflection to see different perspectives I feel differently about what happened. This is a whole man who does good in the world, makes mistakes and wants to connect to the people who matter to him. And sometimes he does it gracefully and with thought, and sometimes his words and intentions don’t match. And that can be said for all of us. I still wish he had made other choices for his speech, but I’m hoping bringing it to his attention will be received in the spirit it is intended — to shift his thinking a little bit.

In practicing this different way of thinking, I’m also flexing a muscle that needs to be practiced regularly for it to work well: the empathy muscle. As the articulate and powerful shame researcher Brene Brown has identified, empathy is a practice, and a skill that can be learned. Combine that with the work of Teresa Wiseman in identifying the attributes of empathy, there is a step by step process to support each of us to look at the world in new and different ways.

Photo Credit: Brene Brown Courageworks, A Semester of Living Brave, online training 2016

For me, some of these empathy steps happened after the event, rather than in the moment. In the moment I was angry, then I re-focused on courage to complete the swim. Later, I spent some time stewing and judging. It’s only now that I practice the skill of taking perspectives that I can step out of judgement, recognize the emotion, and practice mindfulness.

I was feeling good about this practice so I thought I’d try and think through something really big and hard, where my judgments are closely held and core to my values of courage, compassion, and integrity.

So I tried to look at the historic January 2016 decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that the federal government in Canada is guilty of discrimination against aboriginal children. If you don’t know about this, you can read this article by CBC. Be prepared to be shocked and horrified.

Photo credit: CBC

Cindy Blackstock (pictured to the left), Executive Director of the First Nations and Family Caring Society, deserves a Nobel Peace Prize and the Order of Canada for her tireless work over more than a decade to right this wrong. If I’m practicing perspective taking, I’ve got to own that is my opinion.

I have spent hours trying to think through other ways of looking at the situation — but I’m finding it enormously difficult. I started to try to write them out — different motivations or ways of thinking or being that would have resulted in a lack of funding or support for indigenous children. But I crossed each one out. I feel physically ill when I imagine even writing possible ways of being that would have led to those decisions, year after year. I find myself feeling equal parts rage, grief, and heartache on behalf of generations of indigenous children. I think of my children, and how all children deserve hope, possibility, care and for their needs to be met. I feel shame that my government could do this. I find myself stuck in judgment, stuck at THIS IS WRONG.

Photo credit:

I’m digging for the learning and the insight in the situation. It would seem that for me, some things ARE wrong, and not open to perspective taking and non-judgment. I’d put basic human rights in that category like those outlined in the UN Declaration on Human Rights — discrimination that limits these basic rights makes it hard to take the “other” perspective.

Perhaps the opportunity lies in seeing and seeking to understand the people behind the issue, and looking for ways to understand their ways of looking at the world — even if I don’t agree with them.

  • I wonder what was going on inside the government, where decision-makers were fighting the case, and defending the status quo?

  • I wonder at how hard it might have been to have been a government employee unable to withstand the feeling of being under siege to meet needs you knew you couldn’t meet within the budgets you were given to manage?

  • Perhaps there were employees working hard to make some small differences in the lives of children where they could, and making hard decisions, working within the system they had?

  • Perhaps there are federal employees who are now celebrating the historic Tribunal decision, knowing that there is finally the possibility to affect real change and right past wrongs?

When I try on these other perspectives, I can feel compassion for some of the people involved on this “other” side of the situation. It goes without saying my heart is with the children, families and communities who have borne the impacts of this discrimination.

But if the soul of empathy is supporting others so they are not alone in their suffering, perhaps I am best served to weave my empathy as a way of BEING and combine it with action and DO something to affect change. If I am moved in these situations, what can I DO to make a difference?

In the case of Councillor Taylor, I will send him this blog, and encourage him to think before he speaks, and to recognize the potential impact and message in his words. In the case of discrimination against indigenous children in Canada, I will channel my judgment and my empathy into action and take the time to identify how I will contribute to being part of a nation that rights these wrongs.

How will YOU practice taking the other perspective, non-judgment and empathy in your life?

BLOG UPDATE: February 8, 2016

As I committed to in this blog, I sent it to Councillor Mark Taylor for his information. I was surprised and touched that he replied, and in that reply he thoughtfully and openly talked about what he intended to say, and how being viewed as a “whole person” is appreciated. With his permission, I am posting an excerpt from our email conversation here, to add context and insight into the situation and the man.

Good afternoon Stephani

Thank you for sharing your blog with me.

I took the time to read it a few times to ensure I was lifting what I believe to have been the spirit of your message.

To that end I would like to offer a reply..

First, let me say that I sincerely apologize if I offended you, your daughter (or anyone else). That was certainly not my intention.

While I don’t recall using the word “balls” — I do recall using the word stones.

I also recall seeing a good mix of men and women in the tent.

My point — perhaps poorly articulated, was that it takes courage to jump in the water, courage that exceeded the traditional assumptions of gender, age, strength etc and went to courage of character. Courage like we see from the kids who face cancer which is why we were all there.

I regret if I left you with a poor impression — moreover your daughter.

I was raised by a single mother, have two daughters myself and am a big advocate for equity and equality for all of them. I helped champion the Female Firefighters In Training Camp held every year because I believe our girls should see no career as being off limits.

Notwithstanding my unscripted remarks, I hope your daughter considers some form of public service one day. It is a calling and one I believe should be answered by whoever feels it.

As an aside — I am a big fan of Brene Brown — I’ve heard all her TED talks and agree wholeheartedly that what factors most often in our lives whether we know it or not is shame, guilt and the scars left by them.

Thank you for taking the time to write to me.

Thank you as well for your perspective in considering my remarks not in the context of the moment but in the context of my whole character.

That is not something often afforded to public figures by the press.

You mentioned the news article about my ‘deputy mayor’ branding. The news chose not to mention that most of that money was for letterhead to last 4 years, letterhead every councillor buys regardless what title is printed on it. It also doesn’t mention that in the 1st term of Council, declingin my car allowance I left over $25,000.00 of my salary with taxpayers.

The articles about the election compliance audit process don’t mention that this decision is under judicial review at the moment.

The ‘other side’ of these stories never gets printed, balance doesn’t make for good press — it just leaves everyone feeling a little more human.

Thank you for taking the time to help me to improve myself, and again I hope you encourage your daughter to attack life with complete disregard to her gender, abilities or challenges. It’s the motivation that defines our success, if that comes from a good place — you can’t go far wrong.



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