Actor Alan Alda, star of the TV series “M*A*S*H, as well as host of the award-winning series Scientific American Frontiers, also turns out to be an author who is interested in how people can communicate with one another more effectively–and especially, how empathy contributes to meaningful and effective communication and connections between human beings. He realized, several years ago, that scientists and doctors often have difficulty communicating with their audience, whether that means an auditorium, or a single patient. He started the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.
This book is the fascinating, and very readable, story of how he got there, and what he has learned along the way. He says, “As we helped scientists be clear to the rest of us, I realized we were teaching something so fundamental to communication that it affects not just how scientists communicate, but the way all of us relate to one another. We were developing empathy and the ability to be aware of what was happening in the mind of another person. This, we realized, is the key, the fundamental ingredient without which real communication can’t happen.”
Alan Alda clearly has a fascination with all things scientific and all things human, and so he takes us on the journey with him as he explored how meaningful communication and empathy develop and can be increased. He shares some surprises with the readers–such as the value of improv! He talks about a camp for teenagers on the autism spectrum, and how doing improv exercises helped them. Improv forces people to pay close attention to the other person, reading their faces, listening to the emotions they are conveying, and paying real attention to what they say and do. Simple improv exercises, such as mirroring another person wordlessly, are highly effective. In fact, once the person who developed this program realized how much it was helping the kids on the autism spectrum, he and his colleagues published a rigorous study that measured their improvement in empathy, showing significant results. There is now a program called Spotlight, using these improv techniques, which serves over 350 kids in Boston every year.
This highly readable book ranges far and wide, with many interesting stories (in fact, there’s a chapter called stories, where he shows how we connect with one another via our own stories, sharing them and listening to others.) After you read this book, you will put Alan Alda on your list of people you’d most like to have dinner with. And if you did have dinner with him, you can bet that he would listen to you closely and with true attention and empathy!
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is the widely respected organization that offers medical care to refugees and displaced persons around the world. Its doctors volunteer, often at great personal risk and hardship, out of a strong feeling of empathy for the suffering people of the world. Their mission:
Providing lifesaving medical humanitarian care, and speaking out about what we see.
Not only do they do this valuable medical work, they also have as part of their mission educating people about the needs and lives of the dispossessed. In other words, they work to increase our empathy for the 68.5 million displaced persons in the world. As they say: “MSF’s actions are guided by medical ethics, which means that we have a duty to provide care for those who need it, no matter who they are or where they are. Bearing witness and speaking out about extreme needs and unacceptable suffering are at the heart of our mission.”
On their website, you can go to pages that further explain the lives and experiences of the people they work with, whether it’s the migrants crossing the Mediterranean, or the Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, or the South American migrants heading north. Not only do they work to provide medical support, they also seek to “tell the stories” of these people. In 2018 they developed an interactive, live traveling exhibit called Forced From Home to tell and show people directly what the lives and experiences are for the displaced of the world. This included a virtual reality experience of going to refugee camps and meeting and hearing from refugee families. This traveling exhibit will be offered again in 2019. You can check the MSF website for dates and places in 2019.
All Are Welcome Here is a grassroots movement that started in Minnesota in the aftermath of the 2016 election, in response to expressions of hate and racism that happened at the high school which the founder of AAWH had attended. She felt compelled to do something, to speak out against this growing atmosphere of tolerance for hate speech. So she made a sign and put it out in her yard. From that one simple, heartfelt sign, the movement has grown. Now you see the signs all over the metro area of Minneapolis/St. Paul. People are putting their support for tolerance and inclusion out at their homes and at their businesses and at their schools in many states. Harvard Dance School welcomed new students this fall with the signs.
Listen to the words to of a Somali high school student who is new to our country and wears a hijab: “When I went to visit my friend in Minneapolis and saw so many ‘All Are Welcome Here’ signs in people’s yards, and all the “Black Lives Matter” signs, for the first time, I felt like I could really relax. I felt like I belonged.”
This is the mission of AAWH: “Our mission is to support an inclusive, non-partisan, and positive environment for All in the state of Minnesota and the broader United States. We believe diversity makes Minnesota and the United States great, and we are committed to taking concrete actions to support our mission and vision.”
Check out their Facebook Page to see interesting posts about how people are working to help all people feel welcome.
9 Essential Habits that Provide the “Empathy Advantage”
Michele Borba has written a powerful new book about the decline in empathy in our children, and what to do to reverse that. Have you seen all the “selfies” that young people post on social media these days? That’s what the title refers to, and she says it directly relates to the 40% drop in empathy that researchers have seen over the last 3 decades. “Self-absorption kills empathy, the foundation of humanity, and it’s why we must get kids to switch their focus from ‘I, Me, My, Mine’ to ‘We, Us, Our, Ours.’”
As I read this book, I marked page after page to come back to. It is rich with insights and ideas. Let me share some of Borba’s wisdom here:
“Above all, remind your child: ‘Just like when you practice guitar, soccer, or your multiplication tables, the more you work at being kind, the kinder you’ll be.’”
“We live in a plugged-in culture. The single best predictor of healthy emotional interaction is a lot of face-to-face communication… Staring at computer screens, texting, tweeting and IMing do not teach kids their emotional ABCs. … The average eight- to eighteen-year-old is plugged into a digital media device about seven hours and 38 minutes a day.”
Borba discusses extensively how parents can foster empathy, and it is clearly parents who are the driving force here. In a study of people who rescued Jews from Nazis, the most determining factor was that their parents instilled in them “a strong identity based on caring values and an ethic of social responsibility.” She cites another study that found “children whose parents used induction–who discussed how a child’s misbehavior made them, the parent, feel–showed higher levels of empathy, perspective taking, and prosocial behaviors than kids whose parents relied heavily on power-assertive discipline such as taking away privileges, or on physical punishments like spanking.”
Borba has tons of practical advice, for both parents and teachers, on how to help kids be more empathetic (something that she says is not well-valued today in our culture of promoting self-esteem and achievement), including reading more, making and modeling kindness as a family and classroom value, helping children learn self-regulation, and giving children more opportunities for open-ended free play with a variety of friends.
Please read this book. It is important, today more than ever.
The New York Times has begun a new project, which it asks people to contribute to, edited by BAYETÉ ROSS SMITH, pictured above. In response to politicians who lump groups of people–blacks, Hispanics, women, gays and so on–into a single box, they are asking people to send in their own pictures and stories to say, for example, “This is who a black woman is, this is my experience, this is me.” This series will tell both sides of the empathy coin: We are all different, and we are all the same. That is to say, every individual is unique and should not be stereotyped, and most people have similar feelings and desires.
As Mr. Smith says, “In media, in marketing and in life, it’s all too common to see large, multifaceted groups of people defined by a single narrative. #HereIsMyAmerica — a project we’re launching here and on Instagram — is an attempt to counter that simplistic approach. We’re inviting you to help build a more nuanced national portrait.”
Listen to some of the the first participants. From Teri Johnson, a black woman: “I’m the fifth generation in my family to graduate from college. And out of everyone that I know, I don’t think I’ve met a person — African-American or Caucasian — who can say that. I come from a family that believes a lot in education and believes a lot in helping civil rights. … Not just as African-Americans, but as humans we all want the same things. We want love, we want happiness, we want financial stability, we want to be able to have great experiences, from travel to education to going to great restaurants and seeing great shows.” And from Jessica O. Matthews, also a black woman: “I run a hardware tech company that makes energy-generating products. I am a black woman, and our company is based in Harlem. We have Fortune 100 clients, we do business globally. We have 15 patents and patents pending covering really exciting iterations of our technology. … My parents are immigrants from Nigeria. They both grew up in the same tribe in the same state in Nigeria, but they met in Brooklyn. That’s what makes New York amazing.My mom watched Oprah constantly and decided that we could be anything. I went to an Ivy League school.”
Bookmark the site, and check it out frequently, as hundreds of pictures and descriptions of beautiful Americans are added.
An exciting new initiative is gaining a lot of followers in schools, among parents and others concerned with creating a positive future in which today’s children grow up learning and practicing the vital skill of empathy. As they explain it, “Start Empathy, an initiative of Ashoka, is a community of individuals and institutions dedicated to building a future in which every child masters empathy.
“We urgently must see young people as changemakers and help them develop the skills they need to be empathetic, ethical actors who will positively impact their own lives, their communities, their schools, their companies, their countries and the world, now and throughout their lives.
“Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative is expanding and leveraging Ashoka’s network of social entrepreneurs and other changemakers to drive a movement to make empathy a priority skill for all children. We seek to accelerate society to a tipping point at which this idea becomes inevitable because a new framework has taken hold.”
A growing number of schools are becoming what Start Empathy is calling Changemaker schools. Check out Start Empathy’s explanation on how these schools are fostering empathy skills in their students, and see which Changemaker schools are in your area.
You can connect with Start Empathy at its website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
Conversations about divisive issues can sometimes be emotional, pick-a-side and fight-it-out discussions that leave us feeling worse about the people we disagree with, and sometimes worse about ourselves. But there is a way to talk that feels open, honest and impartial, where you can actually be heard and learn about the people with whom you disagree.
Respectful Conversations are designed not to change minds, but soften hearts.
Respectful Conversations are gaining steam. Since 2012, over 2,000 Minnesotans have participated in over 80 Respectful Conversation on a variety of divisive topics including:
- The amendment defining marriage
- Guns in Minnesota
- Differences between urban and rural government leaders
- Racial implications of religious art
- Religious/non-religious dialogue
- Muslims and Christians on global security
- Jews and Protestants on Israel/Palestine
- Divisive internal organizational issues
The results speak for themselves: On average, 70% of participants report that “I have a stronger sense of empathy for those whose viewpoint is different from my own.” Over 95% agree that they felt listened to.
The Making Caring Common Project from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
The mission statement of the MCC states: “Making Caring Common (MCC) aims to strengthen the abilities of parents and caretakers, schools, and community members to develop caring, ethical children. We’re working to make these values live and breathe in the day-to-day interactions of every school and home.” To that end, it offers many thoughtful and helpful ideas based on excellent research. A particularly useful resource is their 5-point plan called “How Parents Can Cultivate Empathy in Children.” bit.ly/1rWBS1mThis guide offers clear and practical ways to help children become more empathetic, with “try this” ideas for each one. They are:
1. Empathize with your child and model empathy at home.
2. Make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations.
3. Provide opportunities for children to practice empathy.
4. Expand your child’s circle of concern.
5. Help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively. A recent New York Times article featuring this new and important project.
Read more at mcc.gse.harvard.edu/
Meet Your Somali Neighbor
The city of St. Louis Park, just west of Minneapolis, organized a Meet Your Somali Neighbor Forum in February 2014. The free event attracted a crowd many times larger than organizers had expected, indicating that people from difference backgrounds and cultures are eager to learn about each other and connect with each other in an empathetic way. Somali food was served, and Somali-American community members spoke both in an informative talk, and in a friendly Q & A session. The evening ended on a beautiful note with an original poem read by a senior at St. Louis Park High School, who is becoming renowned already for her poetry. Since we in the audience had learned earlier in the evening that poetry is profoundly important in Somalia, this was especially meaningful.
Here are a few things we learned that evening:
For Somalis, if you can’t get along with your family, you are not respected.
There is a great deal of sharing between neighbors. It would not be unusual for a Somali woman to go to her neighbor to borrow some salt in the middle of the night.
Somalia is essentially 100% Islam, which is a way of life that guides everything. For example, Somalis must give 25% of their income to charity. And Somalis have a harder time buying houses here in the United States, because Islam forbids paying interest.
In Somalia, parent involvement in education is not encouraged; it is up to teachers to educate and discipline children at school. So Somali parents do not expect to be called in to schools to be part of their child’s educational process, which can lead to misunderstandings between teachers and parents.
We would encourage all communities with immigrant populations to organize similar “get to know your neighbors” events. To read more about this one, see Meet Your Somali Neighbors Forum Attracts a Crowd. If you know of similar empathy-promoting events where you live, please let us know. We’d love to hear about them!
Chris Kluwe Former NFL Star
“Societies that don’t practice empathy, if you look at the historical record, every single civilization has failed. … And really, the root cause of that is not being able to put yourself in someone’s shoes. It’s empathy, it’s treat other people the way you’d like to be treated.”
Who said these simple but profound words? Not a politician, not a religious leader, not a syndicated newspaper columnist. No, it was a punter/pundit on Conan O’Brien’s show recently.
Chris Kluwe was a punter for the Minnesota Vikings when he wrote a letter to Deadspin in August 2012 criticizing a Maryland State delegate who demanded that the Baltimore Ravens silence a player who had spoken up in favor of same-sex marriage. The letter was well-reasoned, thoughtful, articulate and used very colorful language to make the point that the fundamental American values of free speech and equality for all were being threatened by this legislator’s attitude. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-kluwe/an-open-letter-to-emmett-burns_b_1866216.html
The letter got a ton of attention, and catapulted Chris into the limelight. It took him everywhere: from helping with the fight to defeat the anti-gay marriage amendment in Minnesota, to appearing on many talk shows, to being the Grand Marshall of the Pride Parade in Minneapolis in July, to writing and promoting a book of essays, Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies.
And always, for Chris, it comes down to empathy. Here’s what he says in an essay in the book entitled “For the Children”, wherein he refutes the argument that opponents of same-sex marriage use that they’re doing it “for the children”: “It’s about giving our children the tools to succeed in life-tools like empathy and kindness. …It’s about understanding that there are countless children and they’re not all going to be the same and that we should celebrate that diversity as they mature into adults.” (p 54, Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies.”)
We saw Chris Kluwe speak to a packed house on his book tour recently, and were impressed with his wit, his smart and rational approach to life, his down-to-earth attitude, and his good humor. Chris Kluwe gets it, that it all starts with empathy.
Check out Chris Kluwe on TV talk shows: Conan O’Brien bit.ly/151z0AP
NPR’s The Race Card
The Ellen DeGeneres Show bit.ly/14Urzf2 Michele Norris, the National Public Radio host, was starting a book tour for her memoir, which explored racial secrets. Sensing a change in the atmosphere after the election of the first black president, and searching for a new way to engage and listen, Norris printed 200 postcards asking people to express their thoughts on race in six words. Thousands of submissions have poured in from the web, in the mail, by hand or via Twitter. Spend some time scrolling through The Race Card Wall. Click through to read some of the stories behind the six-word submissions. Send in your own six-word essay. Share this with your friends. Join the conversation.
Visit The Race Card Project at: theracecardproject.com/
Children’s Culture Connection
Children’s Culture Connection is an organization that connects kids from America with kids who live in 12 different developing or war-torn countries. Kids form relationships with peers in these countries, and learn to understand life from a new perspective in a very personal way. This learning about each other is a two-way street. Children’s Culture Connection also runs a summer camp program for middle school students. This past summer, students from several schools in Minnesota connected with students in Afghanistan. This is what CCC said about the experience: “The American students learned about Afghanistan beyond the headlines. They learned how illiteracy affects the ability of people to understand the world, and how easy it is to be brainwashed. Their participation in the camp and outreach to the vulnerable Afghan students allowed them to discover a new view on the world, and how human connectedness can bring hope to the most hopeless place on earth.”
Check it out: http://childrenscultureconnection.org/
Children’s Author David LaRochelle
Check out a wonderful book for young adults by David LaRochelle, Absolutely Positively Not.
Sixteen-year-old Steven DeNarski doesn’t know if he’ll pass his driver’s test or if he’ll ever understand his parents, but there’s one thing he’s sure of: he’s absolutely, positively NOT gay. He sets out to prove it by collecting photos of girls in bikinis, sitting at the jock table at school, and dating like crazy. “Absolutely” takes a humorous look at the life of a regular boy who’s finding out what it takes to be a real man.
This delightful book won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Whether you are gay or straight, sixteen or sixty, you will enjoy the endearing characters and the story of Steven’s path to self-acceptance. David LaRochelle says that Steven is based on himself. He says, “Like Steven I was scared to death that somebody might discover I was attracted to men, and I did all sorts of ridiculous things to prove to myself, and the world, that I was absolutely, positively not gay. And like Steven, when I finally decided to be honest, I was a much happier person.” (from Daphne Lee’s interview: bit.ly/lTZL32)
In a recent interview David had for the Red Balloon Bookshop, he was asked, “If you were a superhero, what super power would you like to have?” He answered, “I would like to have the power to give empathy to others. It’s hard to hate someone once you get to know them and get a glimpse of what his/her life is like.” David added, “One of my favorite quotes is: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.’ The older I get, the more truth I find in this sentiment.”
To find out more about David LaRochelle, check out his Website at davidlarochelle.net
Check out this fascinating video clip from noted author and social thinker Jeremy Rifkin, who asks, “Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?”