Jake Lamb is a senior, majoring in politics and international relations, with a minor in psychology

This post is the seventh of our new season, For Times Such as This, and a return to.  If you have not yet done so, please read this season-opening post for some brief context. 

Although there appear to be endless merits to healthy communication, many individuals refuse to accept this practice. For example, many individuals prefer to share their true thoughts on current events over social media where verbal cues can be lost in translation rather than face-to-face with other individuals. Although many elected officials can be thought of as experts in communicating their political perspectives, they often lack communication skills to those with whom they argue their points. This relational disconnect can be attributed to simple issues such as lack of exposure, use of technical jargon, and tendency to choose comfort over growth. Furthermore, communication requires much more empathy and effort than many may realize. Despite being an everyday aspect of our lives, communicating is still a skill in which many of us would admit we need improvement. The struggle in communicating is better understood by unpacking the meaning of empathy and how it can be applied to help us better relate to others. One of the many simple ironies in life is that to improve our own communication, we need to focus on what others are saying. It is this backward and unorthodox way of thinking that is required to guide our actions if we desire to make meaningful change, a view that Alan Alda shares in his book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?:

When it comes to communicating complex knowledge and developments in the field, those with expertise find difficulties in explaining their findings to others. Alda argues that this inconsistency results from the fixation on logical processes rather than relational dynamics. As Alda notes “Being truly connected to the other person happens when we see them in a way that’s both emotional and rational.” (24). This drive for connection with others is helpful when applied to politics in the way that it helps us through conflict and to bridge our differences through a common mechanism of human relations. The basic human desire to be heard is an important point of reflection that Alda emphasizes as a way of improving how we relate to each other (28). As Alda advocates for a deeper examination of our thinking towards fundamental human tendencies, we also need to stay aware of the nature of the fields into which we are going.

Although there are many significant points for growth in the current political climate, we must remember how underlying norms become entrenched in human institutions. The communication strategies encouraged by Alda have undeniable practical benefits, but they may be subject to more scrutiny when applied to political questions of significant gravity. As a result of the various checks on differing actors’ authority embedded in the United States government, there are consistent opportunities for conflict or tension. If every political actor were to go into their roles with empathy or hearing the other side’s perspective at the forefront of their minds, how would they preserve their values? We often value elected officials who display empathy towards us, but not those working against the goals we want them to achieve. This cognitive inconsistency can result in harmful double standards when it comes to the development of empathy in government. Recognizing this point does not ignore the importance of empathy to communication and political interactions entirely, but rather underscores that it may not be the most productive characteristic if what we value in our politicians is efficiency in coming to decisions with lasting results. However, as we certainly value efficiency and the ability to achieve concrete policy change among our elected officials, we need to value empathy as an end that extends beyond policy objectives. If our government consisted of individuals who valued empathy, there would be much more opportunity for compromise to produce meaningful change.

While many of the nuanced complexities of communication in research-oriented fields appear difficult for individuals to approach, Alda wants his audience to recognize the tendency to overcomplicate information (28). In Alda’s continuing focus on human nature, how individuals are aware of their own agency and how they relate to others can be embraced as another way of improving how we relate to others (179). This perspective helps to emphasize how we perhaps place too much value on empirical data over relational moments. By examining the relational ends we are trying to achieve, we attribute more meaning and intention to how we apply our means. Therefore, we must not miss the forest of empathy by focusing on the singular tree that itself is the difficulties that come with communicating effectively. This mindset shift may not appear to create any concrete change, but it holds tremendous value if embedded in the social norms of not only political actors but society as a whole. Although it would be ideal if the value of empathy were embraced at all levels of society, individuals need to remember that the only definite change can be created within oneself and remain consistent in this ideological embrace.




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