Practicing Empathy: “How Would I Feel If…?”

Slipping into another’s skin comes easier to some than others.

Multicultural environments prepare those who grow up in them to imagine how a person from a different background thinks and feels, imagine another’s experience in this world.

In that person’s experience, multiple worlds exist, so slipping fluidly from one perspective and reality to another is often more familiar; it comes naturally.

But for those of us who live in a monocultural environment – that is a single, homogeneous culture – the change in perspective is not innate.

Despite having no experience or natural instinct to shift perspectives, there is a simple way to practice.

Ask The Question: How Would I Feel If…?

A Walmart CEO is heading up a branch in Germany.

He digs his feet in, declaring English the company language there and forcing his German staff to communicate only in English. He refuses to learn a lick of German.

If this Walmart CEO had taken a moment to ask himself, “How would I feel if the tables were turned?” he might experience a shift in perspective that would reverse this decision.

If he had imagined for a moment a German CEO at BMW in New York forcing his employees to speak German, declaring it the official language of BMW, he might have seen how flat-footed such a decision is.

How would American employees react? How would YOU react?

Asking the simple question, “How would I feel if a foreigner was doing this in my culture/country?” allows the shift in perspective you need to see your own obvious cultural blunders (i.e. “monkey moments“).

You can also take this view when accommodating foreigners in your own country.

For instance, if you have a visiting colleague from Japan and you know something of the Japanese culture, you probably understand that physical contact – and especially touching of the face – is considered intimate and taboo in Japanese culture.

Although it’s part of your own culture and this visitor is in your country, you might consider, “How would I feel…?” And instead of going in for a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or even a handshake, as are customary greetings in many cultures, you might offer your visiting colleague a bow. Doing so is respectful and would make this colleague that much more comfortable and at home in your country.

While your colleague may try to adapt to their host country and greet you as is customary in your culture, they will likely appreciate the empathetic gesture that you’ve extended.

Tommy Thompson & Krushchev

A little understanding and shoe-shifting go a long way in cross-cultural relations.

In politics, you might call it diplomacy, which is defined as:

“the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way.”

An example of this by Psychologist J. E. Sherman in Psychology Today illustrates a rather extreme example of how shifting perspectives can truly facilitate cross-cultural relations – and even save the world from war.

Sherman explains that missiles had been installed by the Soviets 225 miles off the Florida coast in Cuba during the Cold War.

President Kennedy had to show a strong front. He was leaning toward an airstrike, which would, of course, have escalated the situation, but he thought he was boxed in.

However, level-headed senior foreign service officer Tommy Thompson offered some keen advice.

Having lived with Soviet Premier Khrushchev, Thompson could adopt his perspective, and he convinced Kennedy to go for a softer front: to make Khrushchev an offer that there would be no U.S. retaliation if the Soviets pulled out.

Of course, we all know the result: Khrushchev took the offer, and the world was saved from nuclear war.

Sherman writes:

“Thompson, a competent shoe-shifter put himself in Khrushchev’s shoes. He recognized that Khrushchev wasn’t expecting the US to find out about the missiles so early and hadn’t foreseen the potential for direct confrontation. He would be looking for a way to save face, to claim that he had saved Cuba from attack.”

You, too, can be a competent shoe-shifter like Tommy Thompson.

All it takes is to ask yourself what your own feelings/reactions might be if the shoe was on the other foot.

The conscious process of shoe-shifting allows you to delve into thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in another’s perspective.

In the end, while practicing empathy and active tolerance, you gain insight into individuals, differing perspectives, and foreign cultures.

How to Cope in Uncertain Times: A Call for Ambiguity Tolerance

These are uncertain times.

The current climate has everyone spinning, trying to make sense from the senseless and turn the upside-down rightside-up again.

With so much conflicting information, so many question marks and dashed plans, ambiguity tolerance has never been more important.

Last week, we talked a little about uncertainty avoidance and ambiguity tolerance. In this post, we’ll discuss how to develop the latter.

Low Ambiguity Tolerance = Little Room for Relativism

Parental and cultural ideologies teach us right versus wrong and good versus bad.

Racism, for instance, stems from these very distinctions. The concepts of good and evil are clearly defined in such extreme ideologies, leaving little room for relativism or doubt.

When a system has strong rules and norms, ambiguity tolerance is often lower.

Such norms and classifications also exist in cultures with higher ambiguity tolerance; however, there is greater wiggle-room, and classifications are more flexible.

People, situations, and ideas are still labeled and placed in boxes but said boxes are open and cardboard, allowing easier interchangeability, not hard and inflexible under lock and key.

Oftentimes, the more diverse a place is, the higher the ambiguity tolerance – both because there’s need for it in order to keep relative peace and because there’s exposure to others, hence less uncertainty.

No matter where you come from, you can improve your ambiguity tolerance to better adapt to places and situations that are strange to you.

In other words, you can improve your coping mechanisms instead of simply avoiding uncertainty.

Developing Ambiguity Tolerance

The following are some key ways in which to tolerate ambiguity:

  • Do Suspend Judgment – As we’ve spoken about previously, judgment in uncertain times (like now, during this pandemic) or in uncertain environments (like multicultural ones) does nothing but shut done your tolerance. Remaining neutral in your expression of personal opinions about the norms/behaviors of others and other cultures allows room to breathe and grow. When you leave your mind open, you enable yourself to explore the wider world rather than locking into a narrow mindset.
  • Don’t Assume – We all know what assuming does. Instead of assuming certainty about everything going on around you – assuming you know what and why and how things are happening – learn how to ask questions. Listen instead of speaking. Dig deeper, ask “why,” and encourage others to “tell me more.”
  • Do Consciously Relax – Those raised in rule-based cultures like things to be cut and dry. Those raised in low ambiguity tolerance cultures like one Truth as opposed to many truths. Stretching oneself outside of fixed ideologies causes stress, so learning how to deal with that stress takes conscious effort. Use meditation and deep breathing exercises – or any other personal relaxation methods – to help you de-stress and remain calm when you’re stretched. Making these conscious efforts will help you cope in cross-cultural environments and in uncertain times.
  • Don’t Hurry Yourself – Slow down. Now, is not the time to rush things. While you might be of the mantra that “time is money,” it’s important to slow down when the times or the environment calls for it. Taking time to examine, reflect, and give your full attention and care to cultures, people, and situations of uncertainty will ease the additional stress that a time-sensitive nature causes. Don’t be in a hurry to change yourself or to fully understand; allow yourself the time and care to adapt.