Skip to content

Better Angels

9 min

This post was originally an email sent to the Better Questions Email List. For more like it, please sign up – it’s free.

This post is about the election, but it is NOT about politics.

I would really, really appreciate it if you would give this one a read.

Grab a coffee, get a quiet place, and give me a bit of your time. Even if you’re sick of the news by now.

If you like it, please do me a favor and share it with someone who’d like it.

OK? OK. 🙂

Should I extend empathy to my enemies?

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Abraham Lincoln

“Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

James Baldwin

It’s been quite the week, eh?

Emotions have run high during this election. The electorate is more driven, more engaged, and more motivated than ever before (at least, as measured by voter turnout, which sites at a record high of 72.1% as of this writing).

As a result, the reaction to the A.P.s call for a Biden victory was also extremely strong.

I am not going to talk about the election itself, or the decision to call the race despite the Trump administration’s legal challenges, in this email. If you’ve been repeatedly “doomscrolling” or “joyscrolling” over the past few days, this is something different.

I want to talk about us.

You know. The People.

I want to talk about what this election – and our politics in general – is doing to us.

And I want to start with empathy.


It wasn’t long after the A.P. announced their results that I started seeing reactions like these all over Twitter:

(Below are a few random samples from my timeline)

It’s very clear that many on the left don’t feel empathetically inclined to those who support or voted for Trump.

For many who remember the feeling of disillusionment that followed the 2016 election – and the mockery that came after…

…2020 feels like a time to even the score.

They don’t deserve empathy because they would never give it to us.

Let me make an argument:

This is completely the wrong way to go.

I know emotions are high, and changes are that if you’re a Biden voter, you’re not feeling particularly forgiving.

And if you’re a Trump voter, you probably don’t think “the left” has any empathy in them, anyway.

Wherever you fall on that spectrum, give me this email to make my case.
Let’s start at the beginning:

What is empathy?


Empathy is Not Sympathy

Empathy is a form of perspective-taking.

Former FBI hostage-negotiator Chris Voss defines empathy to his students as “the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart, and the vocalization of that recognition.”

It’s critical to understand that when we discuss empathy, we do not mean “sympathy,” which is feeling someone else’s feelings.

Neither is empathizing the same as agreeing. Empathy does mean that we accept or validate another person’s thoughts or feelings. We don’t even need to understand why the person feels the way that they do.

The core element of empathy is presence. We are truly present, here, in the moment, aware of what the other person is experiencing. We try to perceive it as clearly as possible, without judgement, and reflect that perception back.

So…if empathy is not agreement or understanding, why is it so important?

Three reasons:

1. Empathy is the beginning of all communication;
2. Empathy is tactically effective;
3. We need it ourselves.


Failure to Communicate

If you deeply disagree with a great number of your fellow Americans (as I do, on any number of issues)…

The uncomfortable fact remains that they still…you know…get to vote.
The virtues of democracy – and it’s endless frustrations – all stem from the fact that we need to accommodate one another. The minority often has power enough to make any change you care about difficult.

And while Joe Biden and the Democrats may be riding high at this very moment, they will still have to get things done. They’ll need the support of Congress, and, sooner or later, they will need the support of some Republicans.

If you care about societal change, you need to convince people to support you.

In other words, you need to communicate.

And all communication begins with empathy.

Note that I didn’t say empathy improves communication, or that it makes communication more effective. Communication literally begins with empathy…and can’t exist without it.

Marshall Rosenberg, the author of Nonviolent Communication, puts it this way:

“When we stay with empathy, we allow speakers to touch deeper levels of themselves….

When people are upset, they often need empathy before they can hear what is being said to them. “

You may disagree with someone’s political beliefs. You may think that all of their suppositions are incorrect. You may think their beliefs are dangerous, or harmful.

But if your goal is to convince them of this fact, you will need to truly hear and reflect back their needs. They will have to feel understood before they can actually hear what you are saying.

If you’ve had an uncomfortable or confrontational political argument lately, this is why. There is little to no actual communication taking place. There is no exchange of ideas, or evaluation of evidence.

Instead, we desperately seek to be understood. We seek a sense of connection and empathy…

(and yes, this is true of those who seek to “trigger” and “own the libs,” just as it is true of those who believe that every Trump supporter is a white supremacist, including the historic numbers of African Americans who voted for him)

…and until that basic requirement is met, all we hear is noise. Threat. Blame. Other.

Again – this does not mean you have to agree. You certainly don’t. It doesn’t mean you have to validate, or legitimate, beliefs you abhor (I would never validate the beliefs of the QAnon truthers, for example, who sought to harass me online and threaten my children).

But if communication is important to you – and it should be – then it has to start with empathy.


Tactical Empathy

Communication begins with empathy…

But influence is strengthened by it.

If your goal is to “move the needle” of our democracy – to build a coalition, launch a movement, pass a law, or right a wrong – then empathy will be one of the primary tools you use.

Salesmen and women have known this for centuries. In any sales training you ever take, what’s the very first thing you do?

It isn’t list your product features. It isn’t finding the prospect’s pain.

It’s building rapport.

It is a core element of human nature that we’re far more likely to work with people we like, and whom we believe are like us. And empathy gives us a tactical advantage in building that impression.

Let’s return to Chris Voss. Voss was a hostage negotiator for the FBI, and has spent years training people in negotiation tactics. He’s hardly the touchy-feely type. And yet, Voss begins his negotiations in the exact same way laid out in Nonviolent Communication – with empathy.

“Tactical empathy is understanding the feelings and mindset of another in the moment and also hearing what is behind those feelings so you increase your influence in all the moments that follow.

“It all starts with the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there.

“By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates empathy and shows a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing.”

Communication begins with empathy…but influence is strengthened by it.
Once people hear what you say, we still need them to change their behavior. It’s one thing to rail on about racists and socialists, but if you actually care about the problems of the world than we need people to do something different. And changing the behavior of humans is notoriously difficult.

Want your kid to stop finger-painting the walls?

Figure out what their needs are through deep listening and tactical empathy.

Want your uncle to stop sharing articles about vaccines during Thnaksgiving?

Figure out what his needs are through deep listening and tactical empathy.

Once someone feels heard and understood, their defenses come down. They open up – even if just a little bit – to new ideas and experiences. Fight or flight is replaced by receptiveness to influence.

Will you always be successful? Of course not.

But will you do FAR more good in the world? Yes.

And that’s what this is all about, right?

It’s not about winning the argument.

It’s about changing the world.


Going First

Finally, there is an even deeper-seated reason we should extend empathy to those we disagree with:

We need it ourselves.

I think often about the James Baldwin quote at the beginning of this email…

“Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

Baldwin certainly had more than his share of “open wounds.” He wrote vividly about race, homosexuality, about living in a society that didn’t “see” him.

Ultimately, the practice of empathy is just as much about facing our own wounds as it is about recognizing the wounds of others. And right now there is precious little of that to go around.

I think one of the reasons our public discourse has become so toxic – and why we have become increasingly polarized, with our political positions drifting further and further apart – is that we are all desperately seeking empathy. We need to feel seen, heard, understood; we are social animals by nature, and the feelings of isolation and alienation that are typical of of our current society are experienced as distress.

We feel like we’re under attack all the time, which makes us angry. And the less we feel heard, the angrier we get. The angrier we get, the less capable we are of feeling empathy.

Rosenberg acknowledges this directly:

“It is impossible for us to give something to another if we don’t have it ourselves. Likewise, if we find ourselves unable or unwilling to empathize despite our efforts, it is usually a sign that we are too starved for empathy to be able to offer it to others.”

Like a playground fight: 

You hit me, so I hit you, so you hit me…

On and on until everyone’s got a bloody nose and two black eyes.

Ultimately, we need to give empathy because we need to receive empathy.

Which means that someone needs to go first.

Someone needs to be the one to stop the cycle of recrimination and anger. Someone needs to be the one to stop and listen.

And no – you shouldn’t have to be the one to go first. Those other people should have already done it..

And yes – you have every right to be angry over what they said to you in the past. Over how you were treated. It was unfair, and unjust.

And yes – the other side has acted badly in the past. You have been mischaracterized. Words have been put in your mouth. None of that was right.

But the fact remains that unless someone goes first, you will never get what you need.

You won’t be able to communciate.

You won’t be able to persuade.

You won’t be understood.

Children are obsessed with “fairness” – with evening the score, with everything being equal.

“He hit me, so I hit him” is the oldest moral code known to man – “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is deep inside our collective subconscious.
But just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s effective.

It won’t make the world a better place. And it certainly won’t advance YOUR agenda over anything except the shortest of terms.

Get rid of fairness. Get rid of what you “shouldn’t have to” do. Get rid of the past.

If you want to make the world a better place, you will need to start with empathy.

So, yes:

Extend empathy to Trump supporters who told you “Fuck Your Feelings” for the last four years.

And, yes:

Extend empathy to the Biden supporters who called you a racist for the last four years.

You don’t have to like it.

You don’t have to agree.

You just have to listen.

And see what happens.

Subscribe to receive the latest posts in your inbox.