It’s a powerful, evidence-based program, one I’ve had the privilege of facilitating for more than 2,000 people since training with Brené three years ago. We dig into the critical elements for building high-performing cultures and teams: hard conversations, vulnerability, trust, values, feedback, resilience…
One of the key areas we cover is empathy, and the first element of empathy involves perspective-taking: seeing things through someone else’s eyes.
Perspective-taking sounds straightforward. How hard can it be to imagine what it’s like to be someone else? Unfortunately, the answer is that it’s really hard. Incredibly hard. Almost impossibly hard.
The thing that makes it so hard is that, while we’re trying to imagine what it’s like to be someone else, it’s impossible for us to forget what it’s like to be us.
And so all the ideas and values and assumptions and experiences we’ve ever had; everything we’ve ever been taught about right and wrong, winning and losing, success and failure; our gender, our ethnicity, our sexuality; all the things that make us who we are and determine how we perceive the world -- all those things stick with us and color our ability to truly imagine what it’s like to… well, not have those things.
Empathy, therefore, requires us to respect and acknowledge someone else’s perspective as valid, even and especially when we cannot fathom what it would be like to have that perspective -- a challenge that becomes harder and harder the more closely we align to the dominant paradigm.
What do I mean by the dominant paradigm? In both the U.S., where I’m from, and in New Zealand, where I live, the dominant paradigm is white, straight, able-bodied, cisgender, male. The more closely we align to this paradigm, the harder it becomes to practice perspective-taking, because what we get taught from birth is that our perspective is the perspective. That the dominant paradigm is the baseline. That the dominant paradigm is “neutral.”
Let me give you an example. I align to the dominant paradigm in every way except my gender. I also love to read, and a few years ago I discovered the utter brilliance of N.K. Jemisin -- seriously, if you’re at all into sci-fi / fantasy, check her out. Anyway, I was about a third of the way through one of her books when I read a line that indicated that the main character was Black. And (I am ashamed to say) I did a double-take. Because in my world, unless and until I’m told otherwise, the protagonist looks like me. I am the baseline. I am “neutral.”
Last November, I wrote about a CBS News tweet asking how young was too young to teach kids about race. The problematic framing of the tweet was summed up perfectly by @scib0rg, who said: “I don’t understand the question. Kids of color don’t get an option.”
I choose to believe the original tweet was intended in good faith. But it clearly never occurred to the author that some people don’t get an option -- likely because the author aligns to the dominant paradigm.
This year, for the first time, New Zealand will celebrate a new national holiday: Matariki, or Maori New Year. Recently Simon O’Connor, a member of Parliament, questioned the name of the holiday, wondering why we hadn’t used “the neutral astrological term Messier 45.”
The term Messier 45 comes from the French astronomer Charles Messier, who catalogued 110 deep sky objects back in the 18th century. O’Connor’s comment, his belief that French is “neutral” while Maori is not, is the dominant paradigm in action.
Once we become aware of this tendency to view our own experiences as “neutral,” we have no excuse. It becomes incumbent on us to respect and acknowledge other people’s perspective as valid, even and especially when we cannot fathom what it would be like to have that perspective.
And if we’re in the media, writing ad copy or editorial copy or social media copy, even more so. It’s time to abandon the myth of neutrality -- and appreciate the world in all its multi-paradigmed glory.