In the course I teach on interpersonal influence, one of the deep lessons is that if you want other people to let you influence them, you’ll have to let them influence you. To open your mind and educate you. So you’ll have to learn to have uncomfortable conversations. (In fact, students have informally dubbed my course, “Doing Uncomfortable Things That Make You a Better Person.”) We use these uncomfortable conversations as opportunities to help us develop empathy, in an exercise I call the Empathy Challenge.
In this challenge, you listen to three different people who disagree with you on an issue you care about. You begin each of these conversations with the assumption that the other person is smart and well-intentioned. As they explain their position, you listen for their underlying values. Finally, you look for common ground as you reflect those values back. That’s it.
Before assigning the Empathy Challenge to students, I tried it myself. This was in 2016, two months before the U.S. presidential election. I couldn’t understand why smart, well-intentioned people would be voting for the Republican candidate, so I set out to hear from them firsthand. Some of my progressive friends were annoyed by my project. “Why are we the ones who always have to listen?” But I knew I hadn’t actually been listening; I had been caricaturing other people’s views without having asked about them.
So, I set up three conversations with Republican voters.
The first conversation was with an Orthodox Jewish man living in New York. The Trump sticker on his car was a cause of regular harassment by strangers, and he was in conflict with friends and family, too. When I asked why he supported Donald Trump, he loudly enumerated his criticisms of Hillary Clinton. I held my tongue until he finished. Then I said, “Since you’ve kept this bumper sticker on your car even though people are honking and yelling at you, you must be a real fan of Donald Trump. I’m curious. Can you help me understand what you like about him?”
He started talking about his faith and about being persecuted for what you believe in. It meant a lot to him that Trump’s daughter and her husband were Jewish. Then he told me a story he had heard about Donald Trump covering the medical expenses for an Orthodox Jewish boy who was gravely ill.
I had no way of knowing if the story was true. If my goal had been to try to win an argument, I might have challenged its accuracy. Instead, I sat quietly for a few moments before observing, “It sounds like you care a lot about helping other people.”
“Of course I do. You have to.”
“And it sounds like you have a soft spot for heroes.”
He laughed. “I guess I do.”
We talked more about life in an Orthodox Jewish community and about the course I was teaching. I could relate to being loyal to your heroes and wanting to help people who help people. If I had shared this man’s beliefs about Donald Trump, I would have had a MAGA bumper sticker too. Our conversation ended amicably.
To my surprise, so did the next two. It wasn’t comfortable exactly, but going into those conversations with the expectation that the other person was smart and well intentioned was helpful. In the second case I agreed wholeheartedly with a Russian émigré’s passion for freedom. In the third conversation I related to an attorney’s deep need for authenticity.
These conversations didn’t shift anyone’s opinions about the presidential candidates; that wasn’t the goal. But I was developing empathy and finding common ground that could have become a basis for agreement on other issues. And I was also learning that people who disagreed with me didn’t necessarily agree with each other. Unique experiences informed their opinions, they had varying degrees of enthusiasm for the candidate, and they each connected with Trump’s platform for different reasons—none of which turned out to be the ones I would have predicted. And overall, their views weren’t as extreme as I believed. I had to admit I too had the false polarization bias I taught about. It’s easy not to notice we’re projecting opinions onto people.
As my students took on the Empathy Challenge, sometimes their experiences were transformative. A pro-life student listened to a close friend explain why she was pro-choice. The friend revealed that she had been raped and gotten pregnant. My student realized that in those circumstances she might have considered getting an abortion, too. Another student healed a family conflict over an arranged marriage, and when the parents felt their values were being affirmed, they became more open-minded about letting their daughter stay in college. And the LGBTQ students who reached out to family members who had judged them found more love there than they had expected.
When you share your perception of what they really seem to care about, you might be wrong–and that’s okay. They’ll want to help you understand them, so they’ll clarify. And be glad you cared to know. Listening this way–to understand their values and connect with them, rather than to persuade them–helps us lean into disagreement peacefully. We learn to accept that you might feel one way about the Black Lives Matter movement if your brother is a cop and you fear for his safety and another way if you’re a Black man fearing for your own safety and having to bite your tongue so you don’t scare anybody.
These conversations aren’t all kumbaya. Some get heated. But we are trying. Having empathy doesn’t establish anything about who’s right or wrong. We’re just trying to understand each other as fellow human beings. By listening skillfully, modeling openness, and letting go of our agendas in order to relate to another person’s experience, we show each other what empathy looks and feels like. By connecting in this way, we open hearts and minds—including our own—to influence.
This piece has been adapted from Influence Is Your Superpower, February 1, 2022, Random House.
Your generosity supports our non-partisan efforts to advance the principles of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement to improve higher education and academic research.