For some of us, the approaching holidays are a time of dread. Beyond beloved traditions like overindulging on food, alcohol and shopping, for some people, it’s inevitably a time when they will clash with loved ones over politics. Plenty of Americans have family members with opposing political views, and Trump has made these divisions even more severe. If progressives are having trouble understanding the conservatives in our own families, how can we begin to empathize with Trumpers who don’t share our blood?
The sharp division in beliefs among Americans today has prompted some to search for solutions. Meet Narrative 4, which was launched five years ago with the goal of spreading the practice of “radical empathy” across the world using the act of storytelling. As the group’s founder, author of “Let The Great World Spin” Colum McCann, says, “every story has a place, even the stories we don’t like.” McCann proposes radical empathy as a way to actually make people listen to one another.
Those who live near or on college campuses may recognize the term, as radical empathy has taken off in universities in recent years. It entails literally placing oneself in another’s shoes by living in a person’s house, shadowing them or otherwise initiating close contact. Radical empathy means knocking down the walls that exist between yourself and another person to better understand them.
Narrative 4 brings radical empathy practice to schools, universities and workplaces in the form of workshops where participants follow a simple story exchange. Partners A and B share a story with one another; then, Partner A tells Partner B’s story to a group using the first person, as if B’s experiences actually happened to A. Then the two switch. Participants in Narrative 4’s radical empathy story exchanges say they often feel changed after the experience. “It’s changed my life for the better,” said Narrative 4 student ambassador Alondra Marmolejos. “It’s such a positive and beautiful thing.”
In these divisive political times, empathy is a more important skill than ever. Lee Keylock, Narrative 4’s director of global programs, agrees that using empathy to understand different political views is hugely important: “It's one of our biggest priorities this year—it’s why our phones are ringing off the hook.”
While the group focuses on the exchange of stories individual-to-individual, their work frequently resonates with the larger project of spreading political empathy across parties. Perhaps their most well-known project is a collaboration with New Yorker Magazine last year, when Narrative 4 brought together a group of individuals with drastically opposing views on one of the most divisive issues in the U.S. today: gun control. Participants in the gun control radical empathy session included a prominent Second Amendment advocate, members of the police and Marines, a parent of Sandy Hook victims, and Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice.
“People crave discourse,” said Keylock. “Debate isn't the only way to go.”
Much of Narrative 4’s radical empathy practice focuses on students and young people. “It’s easier to get them when they’re young because they come with this fresh, open-minded attitude,” said Keylock. “They find they’re very similar to each other. Wheres as adults have had more time to become cynical. They think they need to be guarded."
But older progressives can bring the practice into their own lives, too. “When I look at the news right now, there’s lots of shouting and name-calling and vilifying on both sides, and that includes the Democrats,” said Keylock. “When you start labeling people as an ideology, you’re not really seeing them as a person. Let’s face it, not every conservative voice is what they've been charged within the media, which is homophobic, racists, Islamophobic. That’s just not the case. There are narratives out there that are being missed, so you need to have an open mind.”
Since the 2016 election, a popular explanation for the surprising wave of Trump votes is that Trump tapped into fears and concerns of the white working class that Democrats have long ignored. Whether you give credit to that storyline or not, it seems true that Trump supporters felt their stories weren’t being heard or represented by the mainstream media, and in Trump, they saw a voice they believed would speak for them, misguided as that belief may seem. Keylock agrees with this analysis. “In my experience, one of the hardest voices to bring to the table is the conservative voice. Conservatives are a little scared to speak out because they feel like they get shafted."
He continues: "What happened is that because of all the labeling, people like to dig their heels in the sand. If you ask a political question, people have their argument ready to roll. We don’t do that; we get people to share their personal stories, and we get them to sort of become lovestruck with each other. It’s amazing what happens. We get to some really deep places. We’ve started friendships among these political divides.”
He said hundreds of Narrative 4 story-exchange participants with opposing political views later become Facebook friends and now frequently defend one another’s political posts. It’s incredible to imagine people with different beliefs behaving civilly on the internet, where the cloud of anonymity turns humans into trolls. But Keylock says he’s seen it happen many times.
Narrative 4 does not claim to have a 100 percent success rate when it comes to healing divides. Sometimes, two people can be so different in terms of their life experiences it's simply impossible for them to empathize with one another. “Usually on the issue of guns," Keylock said. "It’s very contentious. Sometimes it's not the right time to bring people into a room together to do it—if you’ve lost a kid to gun violence, it's hard for that person to even entertain the idea. On those issues, you need to give it more time. The more times you bring people together, the more success you have.”
But, Keylock continued, “Honestly, I've very rarely seen the impossible. Political divides can be turned around really quick.”
Keylock also shared advice for those of us with Trump supporters in our families as the holidays approach. “Empathy takes a massive amount of courage, even though it’s considered a soft skill. We have to be vulnerable, be ready to let go. You have to listen to what somebody is saying. That doesn’t mean accept it blindly, but you learn nothing from talking and everything from listening. All people’s stories matter.
“Go in, open your ears, watch your tone. Then tell them your story. A lot of these conversations are bred from fear and ignorance. That turns into hate later. But empathy is about being vulnerable and courageous, and listening and being present. Those are leadership skills. If you can’t do that, how can you lead your conversation forward?”
Also: “Breathe, meditate.”