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Empathy and dialogue are more important now than ever

Authored by Jennifer Sweeney

The reality today is that we are all interdependent and have to co-exist on this small planet. Therefore, the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences and clashes of interests, whether between individuals or nations, is through dialogue. - The Dalai Lama

At 18, I was transported from a very sheltered life in a small town to a college campus. Frequent fraternity parties were too much for my introverted self, so I immediately sought out alternative social activities. Within a week, I discovered my college’s chapter of the Philomethean Society.

Founded in 1813, the Society’s goal is to promote the learning of its members. Our group could be found on Friday nights sipping wine in Old Chapel and discussing things like the merits of boxers versus briefs, the ethics of scientific testing on animals, and everything in between. The best part of those evenings was that we didn’t debate. The focus wasn’t on winning, but on learning. In fact, we were encouraged to share with each other the ways in which our views or understanding had shifted because of the conversation.

Fast-forward 25 years and I feel like our country needs to go to Philomethean Society Bootcamp.

On the eve of the Presidential Election, you would have to be living in a windowless closet not to see how polarized we’ve become.

Just as worrisome—we’re less curious, and more likely to “cancel each other out” than engage in conversation. The irony is that while most of us spend large portions of our days communicating, so little of that communication is actual dialogue. We fire off texts and emails back and forth, we present on webinars, do report-outs on Zoom calls, and post on social media. But none of that is actual back-and-forth discussion which requires slowing down, listening with intention, and asking questions for clarification or understanding.

The classic TV show The Jetson’s convinced my generation that we’d be flying around in cars by now. While we haven’t achieved all of the technological advances predicted in that cartoon, the tiny computer I carry in my pocket that rules my life says we’ve come very far. But, what have we sacrificed in return?

To be frank: I fear our democracy is in danger. Dialogue is the foundation of a thriving democracy, which relies on the ability of citizens to communicate, resolve differences, and make decisions that are acceptable to the majority. And, empathy is the foundation of a healthy humanity. When we begin to view each other as “monsters” because we have differing opinions, we have lost any shared meaning that might have connected us each other. And, that in turn makes it easier—and in some cases even acceptable—to harm one another.

I propose we double down on dialogue versus debate.

Lean into learning versus winning. At this point what do we have to lose but anger, blame and a perpetual sense of foreboding? I’m in, and I’m extending a hand to anyone who would like to join me. I hope you will.

The 3rd Conversation is intended to offer a safe, facilitated space for just this kind of empathetic dialogue and connection, originally for patients and clinicians and now also for clinicians and health care administrators. Let us know your community is interested in participating or drop us a note on social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) about how you’re incorporating more empathy and connection into your life!


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