Hatred is Not the Opposite of Apathy; It's Empathy

New York Times International Edition, November 11, headline reads Business leaders tread lightly on Gaza war. It goes on to explain why it is so difficult for leaders to comment on the lack of knowledge about the history of the conflict, the inability to point to one, and only one, clear victim, fear of appearing either antisemitic or Islamophobic, and concern about negative financial implications – particularly loss of funding or patronage from groups that expect solidarity with their cause. Meanwhile, inside these organizations, there are real humans who want, and need, a sense of connection with their leaders, colleagues, and the values of the organization. 

I don't say this lightly: trauma is all around us. Everyone is on fire. Throughout history, we’ve had tragedy and suffering always, but right now feels more polarizing than anything I can remember. Everyone is furious—and connected. Expressing themselves but not talking with each other; definitely, no one is listening. In New Zealand, Māoris are war dancing in support of Israel and Palestine; across the US, there is withdrawal of funding and threats of more from angry university donors and alumni; and across the globe, from New York to Athens, Greece, the streets are flooded with protesters every weekend. After the eruption of violence during protests held on Remembrance Day in London, Suella Braverman, one of the government’s highest-ranking officials, was fired over comments accusing the police of political bias. And the videos, the horrible videos, keep coming and coming. The rancor keeps coming and coming. All the while, it’s hard to imagine saying anything at all and being unscathed. If you open your mouth, you are scorned. If you don’t open your mouth, you are scorned. 

The comments are horrifying. “Kill them all,” “let them suffer,” “they deserve it”—a massive mob mentality that seems to have taken over everyone. People with Instagram accounts boasting “mom of 2,” posts with cute pictures of puppies or videos sharing their favorite autumn pumpkin recipes are now—and no longer in the privacy of their own minds—wishing brutal agony on others. What is going on?!

These are not just words. This is not “public discourse.” I used to reserve my frustration to the apathetic—those who just don’t care enough about the conditions and wellbeing of others or are unwilling to relinquish some of their own comforts for the good of others. But what we are witnessing now isn’t just mass CARING. If mass caring was so readily available, we would see it applied with the same vigor and intensity to other peoples and communities, also. This is something else. 

The world is being overrun by the most horrible hate I can imagine. It’s spreading like a virus and contaminating us more deeply than likely can be undone. We will never be able to unsee what we are witnessing now. The toxic impact is undeniable. So many people haven’t had a decent night's sleep in weeks. Yes, I am absolutely furious about what is happening now and in all cases of human suffering at the hands of violent and unjust regimes. I have spent my life trying to be of service, to bring human-centered ideas and practices to organizations, communities, and the people who comprise them. But I am literally stuck this time. I cannot see an effective path forward through hate–unless we enlist more empathy. 

I’ve spoken with a dozen DEI leaders and practitioners, and they all feel the same way. Stuck. Silenced or remaining silent to preserve their energy for the day-to-day work of counseling and caring for others. Advocating peace and compassion while being called a coward for not publicly choosing one side and damning another. 

To my colleagues in DEI, HR, education, and healthcare, thank you for all that you are doing to create space for people to be seen and know that their humanity is valued. 

DEI, HR, educators, and healthcare professionals are also deeply trained in feeling and conveying empathy. Empathy means caring about another person’s lived experience. Even if it’s not shared by you. Even if you don’t understand it. 

It’s difficult to practice skills like empathy when our bodies are flooded with trauma. The constant release of cortisol–another dose with every social post, every horrifying video, every time we are or witness others being attacked for trying to express ourselves–diverts resources from the rational, thinking, curious parts of our brains. Instead, we hunker down into self-protection mode. In times like these, we need to have and use tools to help us listen with an open heart, suspend judgment about the person speaking, increase understanding of another’s point of view, and preserve the relationship. One of the most effective techniques in reaching these aims is called constructivist listening. 

Constructivist listening is a structured communication technique for enhanced ability to listen that includes gathering full meaning from the person(s) talking and picking up on conveyed nuances. It intentionally places the power with the person talking and expects that all parties will have equitable time and uninterrupted space to hold the floor. According to the National Equity Project:

…the listener develops capacities for deep listening, presence, and authentic connection while listening to others’ thinking and experiences. The speaker develops capacities for focused reflection, critical thinking and reasoning, and creative, thoughtful action as they construct personal meaning out of information, concepts, and lived experience.

The practice of constructivist listening requires:

  • intentionally inviting a space for conversation that is equitably shared between the parties
  • the speaker “owns” their time when speaking
  • judgment is suspended in order to make room for genuine listening, with the intention of enhancing understanding
  • no expectation of overpowering, diminishing, convincing, or winning. 

6 Considerations When Applying Constructivist Listening

Consider the following when practicing this technique.

  1. Be explicit about your intentions for the conversation. “What is happening now in the Middle East has been heavy on my heart, and I would like to have a constructive conversation about it with you. Would you be willing to talk about how we are feeling and ways we can support each other?”
  2. Don’t assume apples-to-apples reciprocity. Constructivist listening gives power to the speaker and assumes that both parties will have dedicated time to speak. The speaker has control over what and how they share. If you decide to share personal stories or feelings, that doesn’t require the other person to do the same. 
  3. Don’t interrupt. Interruption conveys to the other person that you believe your ideas or beliefs are more important than theirs. 
  4. Don’t compare oppressions. There is enough oppression in the world–some of it felt by people we wouldn’t expect and may not understand. Don’t add to it. Further, all oppression is bad. Trying to one-up another’s oppression never works. 
  5. Pay attention, with ears and heart wide open. Do you ever feel like you want to check in with a person but they seem perpetually busy or distracted? Or when you do open a conversation, their nonverbals signal that they do not want to be in this space with you? Don’t be that person. Time and focused attention are two of the greatest gifts we can share with others; they are priceless. 
  6. Be grateful for the space and express it.  Every person I’ve spoken with since October 7 who has expressed frustration and angst about what is happening in the Middle East and the engagement of others related to it, is negatively impacting their own sense of well-being and relationships. Being in a genuine and caring space with another person on a topic that everyone is wrestling with is a gift. 

I end this post by underscoring that I, too, wrestle with what to say, when, how. My sense of personal well-being is fragile. My relationships are tenuous. I do not write nor share from a place of “knowing,” instead hoping that continuing to do the work I love–being in the service of others in their time of need–may afford me some small sense of peace. I wish for peace, for all of us.

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