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Friday, January 10, 2014

Dialogue and empathy

By: Jennifer Blank Hecht 

A forty-five foot high wall, three feet wide of concrete separates two communities. Houses are 30 yards away, yet children do not play together. They do not even know each other. This is the peace wall in West Belfast.

As we comfortably sit on a tour bus, with the sun shining in, we intently listen to our tour guides and look out of the windows to see the murals of juxtaposing positions and flags of opposing parties.  We drive past and photograph bombed and rebuilt markets. We hear about deaths of innocent bystanders. We strive to empathize with both the Loyalists and the Nationalists.  They each have their stories and realities that we can hardly imagine.  Outside of understanding how peace building and dialogue can bring the Derry/Londonderry and Belfast communities together, what can we take back to our own communities?

We are certainly not living in former war zones, but we do face conflicts and power struggles.  It is our responsibility to take our learning from the peace building and dialogue process and bring it into our daily lives, organizations, families and other relationships.  So, what does that look like?

It starts with building relationships through dialogue.  Dialogue is not simply about talking, but rather communication (Buber, 1955).  It requires that the participants think about and experience more than just themselves. Yankelovich (1999) shared three elements of Dialogic theory:

-Equality and absence of coercive influences
-Listening with empathy
-Bringing assumptions into the open and raise questions you have

Empathy is always orienting to the emotional state through both verbal and non-verbal communication.  Humans are emotional beings. Any issue has emotions attributed to it, whether they are in the open or not, is the question. To better empathize, an individual needs to be self-aware and respectful.  We learn some of these traits as children, yet somehow, over time, we forget them or choose to ignore them.

How can we empathize with each other to come together?  It is not always easy. We won’t always agree and that is beneficial.   It provides different viewpoints to allow us to frame the world in a different way.  The people of Northern Ireland are learning that varied perspectives result in better solutions and opportunities.

With empathetic listening and sincere questions, trust and relationships can be built, even when it seems impossible. Is there a situation where you do not agree or like someone? It could be a colleague, a neighbor, or even a family member. Is it possible to put yourself in his or her shoes to come to a better solution for both of you?

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