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How do I help participants have more empathy for others' perspectives?
Remaining curious and open to perspectives other than our own is critical for empathy, learning, and personal growth. Effective facilitation helps make that possible.
Approximate reading time: four minutes.
“I don’t know anyone who feels that way.”
“If you weren’t so emotional, none of this would be happening to you.”
“I can’t imagine that being anyone’s perspective.”
“That doesn’t at all reflect what my experience has been.”
Do any of these sound familiar? These are all statements from actual meeting participants, statements that indicate a lack of empathy toward others’ perspectives and experiences.
While some people simply accept others’ perspectives or experiences as true for them, others respond with dismissal or a questioning manner. The latter can be an obstacle to groups reaching a decision or working together effectively.
How can facilitators encourage greater empathy among meeting or workshop participants to perspectives or lived experiences that may be very different than their own?
Here are two approaches to consider.
#1: Apply the Mike Nichols approach.
When actors expressed difficulty understanding the mindset of their characters, the famed director Mike Nichols is said to have offered this simple advice. “Think about this. I am like that when …”
“I am like that when …” When facilitating we can invite participants to consider the same if they have difficulty connecting to others. I find it most helpful to introduce this approach at the onset of a conversation or meeting where I think it may be useful, often at the same time as discussing shared agreements or group norms. I suggest people use it on their own when they find themselves resisting others’ perspectives.
Once individuals identify a comparable personal experience, they often discover that—while they may not relate completely to the specifics of another person’s experience or perspective—they can identify with the general sentiment behind it. This newfound common ground changes the tenor of the conversation from the negative tone that dismissing someone else’s opinion can engender.
#2: Use role rehearsals.
Role rehearsals or role plays are a common learning and conversation format in workshops or meetings. When people play a part, they literally step into the shoes of someone else’s lived experience.
Individuals may be challenged though to portray a role, perspective, or opinion that they have difficulty relating to or do not understand. Effective facilitation will provide support—make it easier—for them to perform this role in a meaningful way, particularly if engendering empathy is a goal for the exercise.
Below are tips I’ve previously shared in order to make role rehearsals feel more authentic and to produce a more meaningful learning experience.
If people struggle with thinking their way into a new manner of being or acting, role rehearsals may help them act their way into a new manner of thinking, one that is more empathetic. Be sure to adequately debrief any role rehearsals. First, invite individuals to silently reflect on their experience and identify what they thought or felt during it. Then facilitate open discussion of those reflections.
Every group is comprised of individuals with different lived experiences, perspectives, beliefs, mental models, and opinions. Remaining curious and open to perspectives other than our own is critical for empathy, learning, and personal growth. Effective facilitation helps make that possible.
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