Thursday, May 05, 2005

"Empathy Gap" by Sue Barrick

Please read this by Sue Barrick, vice chair of the Lubbock County Democratic Party. It is PROFOUND. Sue. W.

There has been so much written since last November about what is "wrong" with the Democratic Party, and what we "should" do next to remedy the dismal situation. "Empathy gap" came up in an e-mail to me last month from the Heartland Initiative group that meets in Plainview. It was a term I didn't remember hearing before, so I did some research.

In its broadest sense "empathy gap" refers to the phenomenon whereby a disaster like 9/11 or a tsunami prompts massive relief efforts and monetary donations, while the larger scale suffering of fellow community members due to lack of healthcare, poverty and disease is tolerated and largely overlooked. "Empathy gap" also works, in my mind at least, to describe the paradox that while the highest moral value and cause of action among politically liberal people is to behave with empathy, we are perceived and portrayed in the media as out of touch and uncaring about the "real" concerns of the majority of Americans.

There is, I think, some good news. Though our "Don't Think of an Elephant" re-framing group here in Lubbock has made tremendous progress over the last several months understanding what George Lakoff has to say, and celebrated as individuals' letters to the editor came out, it never really "clicked" for us as a group how to communicate our
re-framed issues effectively on an interpersonal level. Yesterday five of us met at Democratic headquarters in our continuing search for the words and phrases that might activate the "nurturant parent" (which can be translated from "Lakoff-talk" as the ability to empathize and care) in potential swing voters.

Well, I would cautiously like to report that we had something of a break-through. After listening to my experience trying out the techniques of nonviolent communication during a recent visit to our congressman's office, and quickly reading materials gleaned from the
Center for Nonviolent Communication web site (, the proverbial light bulbs started popping on all around the table.

In its stripped-down basics, nonviolent communication works this way:

1. Offer an observation without making any judgment or evaluation. (Observations from personal experience or knowledge in the form of stories are most powerful.)

2. Express your feeling about the situation and tell the thoughts driving your emotion.

3. State what you need for your well-being to be restored regarding the situation, and finally, if appropriate,

4. Request specific action from the individual you are speaking with that will help get your stated need met.

With just this quick exposure to the ideas of NVC, people in our group came up with these new "frames" about standardized testing and predatory credit practices:

Observation: Two young teachers in their 20's became ill with shingles, which usually comes from advanced age or extreme stress, while under pressure to prepare their classes for the TAKS test.
Feeling: Distress.
Thoughts leading to distress: Many 40 to 50 year old teachers just trying to get 80 points toward retirement so they can avoid this kind of unhealthy stress. We stand to lose many experienced teachers this way.
Need: A different approach to evaluating achievement.
Request: That lawmakers/administrators not penalize teachers and whole schools based on standardized test achievement.

Observation: The daughter of a man deceased 25 years ago received a new credit card in his name in the mail.
Feelings: Amusement (what would he buy? wrong address!) followed by anger.
Thoughts leading to anger: Congress just changed bankruptcy laws to hold citizens responsible for their debts but refuses to hold credit card companies accountable for predatory lending practices.
Need: Sane policy regarding the extension of credit.
Request: That the state legislature take action to hold credit card companies accountable.

My "framing" about Social Security from our visit to the congressman's office:
Observation: Even experienced investors can become victims of bad timing or the dishonest business practices of others.
Feeling: Fear for future of family and sadness about future of country.
Thoughts leading to feelings: Our leaders are planning to turn back the clock on Social Security by privatizing it.
Need: To know that the Social Security safety net is protected from the ups and downs of Wall Street.
Request: That the congressman vote against privatizing any part of Social Security.

It may look so simple as to be silly, but putting our observations, feelings, thoughts, needs and making requests based on them this way seems to work almost like magic to take away the occasion for the hearer to become defensive or start arguing. In other words, it keeps the lines of communication open. Of course, there is a lot more to the process of nonviolent communication, including educating ourselves to listen for and respond with respect to the thoughts, feelings and sometimes unstated needs and requests of others with different points of view.

Interestingly enough, I am not the only person on the planet to have hit upon nonviolent communication as a way forward for Democrats in particular, and progressives in general. At the end of a long post on "In These Times" one of the people commenting gives the equivalent of a "Eureka" from India where she is also studying nonviolent communication, and calls it the next great gold mine for progressive political organizing. She sees it, however, not from the perspective of speaking our minds without getting shut down, but from the perspective of re-connecting regular people to their real, as opposed
to Karl Rove-manufactured, human needs. (Remember "What's the Matter with Kansas?") Nonviolent communication methods are clearly compatible with liberal values and seem ripe with organizing possibilities.

If you are interested in working on the issues with our group, newcomers are always welcome. We have decided to resume meeting on the First and Third Tuesdays of the month over brown-bag lunches from 11:30 until 1 p.m. at the Lubbock County Democratic Party Headquarters, 2809A 74th Street (just south of Furr's Cafeteria and the Science Spectrum). This is a no-guilt group. If you can only attend once a month that is
OK, too.

All the best,
Sue Barrick


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