Empathic Connection & Politics

As I write this, it is just a few days after the U.S. Senate acquitted Donald Trump of impeachment. It is no surprise to me that Trump proclaimed himself completely vindicated and exonerated of any misdeeds. What has been shocking and disturbing to me (just when I thought I could no longer be shocked by him and our current political environment) is the way he has been talking about those who sought impeachment or even showed less than 100% support of him, and the way Republican congresspeople are responding to the way he is now talking. 

I hear him painting his political opponents as “liars,” “evil,” “horrible people,” and enemies not only of him, but of the American people and of our democracy. To me, this is very dangerous rhetoric from a political leader in his position — the president of the United States with a large base of ardent supporters! — and the majority of the Republican party seems to be completely behind him and supporting what he is doing. 

This comes on top of what appears to be a radical misinformation campaign surging internationally through media outlets and social media that is tearing at the foundation and fabric of basic social trust and cohesion, and which has only magnified and intensified since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 

Society is increasingly dividing itself into polarized, tribal in-groups living inside of partisan echo chambers. Conspiracy theories across the political spectrum are rampant. Any information that challenges our beliefs can easily be countered or dismissed as “fake news.” These conditions seem ripe for the possibility of an authoritarian government to take hold, even in the United States, which I, and I’m guessing most people, thought impossible until recently. We are already seeing this rise of populist, authoritarian leaders in other democratic countries around the world. 

So, I ask myself quite often, what can I/we do in response to this challenge, from the perspective of empathy and mindfulness in communication? How do we talk to ourselves and with others about what we are observing politically, and be able to support others in these conversations? The answer that comes to me is to slow the conversation down and bring some empathic structure. Take turns spaciously listening and speaking with presence. Seek to understand and be understood rather than press for agreement. Bring mindful awareness into the conversation, so you can experience yourself and the conversation as being seen, held and supported in a field of consciousness that is both you and bigger than you, a larger aliveness and wholeness. Then connect with underlying commonality through a universal language and energy of human needs beyond duality of self and other. 

From this place we can say whatever it is in our hearts and minds that wants to be expressed, however difficult the form of that communication. We can hear and be heard, see and be seen, for all that is true and authentic in us. What is required I believe is that we slow down and use structure to support ourselves to do this difficult and necessary work. We don’t need to know what the solutions or answers or outcomes will be. We just need to “start the conversation,” as one of my inspirational heroes poet David Whyte would say. And as my mentor Marshall Rosenberg often said, if we can “trust the process” and keep attention on our shared humanity, it is inevitable that empathic connection and compassionate giving and receiving will happen. 

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