4 Ways to Exercise Empathy in Controversial Conversations

It’s happening more and more. I see a harmful comment about the color of someone’s skin on social media, or I overhear someone making derogatory jokes about women, or I watch someone casually toss trash out of their car window - and I wonder, “Is there anything I can do about this?”

Deep down, I know I’m encountering these situations for a reason. But I get stuck on what I can possibly say to convince another person that social justice is important, or that women across the globe should have equal rights, or that our environment deserves to be protected. Now more than ever, we are finding our voices and standing up for our beliefs in bigger ways. However, actually sharing that passion for doing good can feel scary and bring up doubts.

“Should I pick my battles? What if standing up for what I believe starts a fight? How can I be more effective when I speak up?”

If you’re anything like me, you’re passionate about multiple arenas of doing good: social justice, sustainable fashion, environmental advocacy, giving back, conscious consumerism, and making more ethical choices in general. For people like us, speaking up matters. We have been given an invitation - via our desire to do good - to change the collective consciousness around these issues. One of the most effective ways to do this is through having empathetic conversations with people who may not see the importance of doing good.

Why empathy?

Leaders influence their world with tiny actions and interactions, as well as large-scale ones. As a leader, you have the opportunity to talk about the issues you are passionate about in a way that opens and expands conversations rather than shutting them down; namely, through upping your empathy and using it as a point of connection.

When you empathetically connect with someone rather than seeing them as wrong or lacking, you have a greater chance of understanding their point of view and offering alternative perspectives.

To up your empathy in conversations with people on the other side of issues you care about, try these four approaches.


1. Trade judgment for curiosity.

When I see a someone with a purebred dog from a puppy mill, my first reaction is to seethe in judgment about how careless and cruel they are. While my snap judgment gives me the instant high of self-righteous anger, it doesn’t actually do anything to change the situation. Even if it’s possible that the person truly is as careless as I fear, it’s also possible that they doesn’t have easy access to a better alternative, or perhaps they’ve never stopped to think about the issue in the first place. Instead of immediately assuming you understand the backstory of their beliefs, get curious. Ask yourself what other interpretations might be possible. Using curiosity instead of judgment might feel awkward at first, but it’s important to understand the “other side” so you can find common ground and encourage them to do good.

What this sounds like: “I noticed that you purchased your new puppy from a breeder instead of adopting him/her from the shelter. I’ve never had that experience before, so I’m curious to hear about what led you to buy rather than adopt. Do you mind sharing your story with me?”

2. Ask open-ended questions.

Build on your newfound spirit of curiosity by asking the other person questions that open and continue the conversation rather than closing it off. Most people enjoy sharing their opinions about an issue, and as a leader, you can use this as an opportunity to gain more information about their beliefs. For example, if you’re talking to a friend or family member who believes that ethical fashion is just a passing fad, instead of asking, _“Do you think the interest in ethical fashion is going away soon?” _change the question to: _“What makes you think that ethical fashion is going away soon?”_ The key to this approach is in asking questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” By asking a question that invites a deeper answer, you increase your chances of having a deeper conversation.

What this sounds like: “I’m curious to hear more about your opinions on this. What are your biggest beliefs about privilege?”


3. Acknowledge and validate.

“Acknowledge and Validate” is one of my favorite coaching skills because it instantly moves the other person away from defensiveness and into openness so that actual conversation can occur. In A&V, you simply help the other person feel heard by acknowledging their beliefs and validating their emotions. For this approach to work, there’s no need to validate their opinions on a particular topic or agree with them in any way. You’re not rubber-stamping their stance on a particular issue; you are simply validating the emotions they feel about it. When people trust that their feelings are being honored, they are more open to listening.

What this sounds like: “It sounds like you believe that voting doesn’t matter because your vote doesn’t really count. I can totally understand why that feels so frustrating and makes you want to stay home.”

4. Tell the story of why an issue is important to you.

If simple facts and statistics could change sway the way people feel about issues, we’d have no more work to do. Instead of seeking to prove why an issue should matter by citing evidence at the other person, ground your passion in something more personal. I earnestly believe that the vast majority of people would be doing good with us if they deeply understood why doing good mattered. Storytelling is an instant empathy machine because it helps people connect with a deeper sense of why an issue is so important.

One of my favorite experiences as a teacher was teaching students about big topics through reading stories. When they got to know the characters and heard about their experiences, it didn’t matter if the characters were a different race, gender, or religion than them. They were simply invested in the story and felt like the characters were friends. When you tell a personal story of why an issue matters to you, you ground the conversation in our common humanity rather than the minor differences that divide us.

What this sounds like: “When I volunteered in Africa, I saw a mom caring for her sick children without access to clean drinking water. It was devastating to think of so many kids dying from preventable diseases. I think I really take water for granted sometimes, but I know the work I do with my volunteer organization makes a difference for people like that mom.”

Don’t forget to practice gratitude for the gift of empathy. Human beings are wired for connection from birth, so as challenging as it can be to practice empathy for people we’d rather dismiss or judge, using empathy in a purposeful way may be the very thing that allows us to make an impact. When it comes to tricky conversations around the big issues, practicing empathy allows us to both share our passions and understand the other person. Try using empathy to foster a deeper connection, instead focusing on winning the discussion or making your point. You might just find yourself changing a mind - or a heart.

Photos by: Cacá Santoro

Amy Everhart

Founder at Amy Everhart Coaching

Amy is a certified life and career coach who helps creative women clarify their calling and then move from calling to career. She’s all about building inner authority and helping women take off the good girl shoes so they can make the impact they were born for. Her current obsessions include Rupaul, Grand Marnier, and the ripple effect women’s empowerment has on the world.