My Friend is Not My Enemy: The Power of Empathy in a Divided World

I can respect people even when they disagree with my political choices. Although we as a country are facing difficult challenges, polarization and social distancing may be the bigger problem. Fear is deepening the divide between liberals and conservatives with a rise in labels such as “close-minded,” “lazy,” “immoral,” and “dishonest.” People are being unfriended. Relationships are ending. Divorces are happening.

I believe that the way forward is not through contempt but through empathy. Research shows that although liberals tend to empathize with a more inclusive global community and conservatives with family and tight-knit social circles, empathy is equally strong for both sides. Politicians and their policies may be my enemy, but my friends shouldn’t be. If they were my friend before the 2016 election, they probably still are. Our government may be falling apart but we the people do not have to.  

Empathy is very different than debate, and the goal of conversation is to share and understand.

Empathy isn’t just passive agreement or acceptance. Instead of distancing myself, I want to allow the time and space to converse with my friends and family about the issues that are important. The only way this works is for me to be willing to hear what they have to say and for them to be willing to hear what I have to say. Instead of sharing blatant disagreement about a political issue or a particular politician with friends, a helpful place to start may be to simply ask questions about why they feel the way they do.

The goal of my conversation with a friend is not to convince them or to even find common ground. Empathy is very different than debate, and the goal of conversation is to share and understand. The problem with our current climate is that we have a tendency to only seek out people with whom we agree while distancing ourselves from everyone else. This distance and isolation is at the very core of our polarization.

Being able to share about how a particular issue has affected me or people that I know is a powerful way to communicate as it provides a foundation for other people to empathize. In addition to being willing to share my feelings, I am also prepared to share my reasoning. I find non-partisan news sources so that I can bring context to the discussion. If I can’t find a particular fact on multiple news sites, it probably isn’t true.

One of the worst things that we can do in a fractured community is to further fracture.

We can have influence on politics through voting, protests, donating to causes that we support, and calling our elected politicians. But through this all, we cannot make the decisions for our government. What we can do is be kind to the people around us. We can give to those in need. We can be friends to our friends. One of the worst things that we can do in a fractured community is to further fracture. I will vote, protest, call senators, and post articles to social media that I find educational and important. But most importantly, I will talk to people. I will do what it takes to respect my political needs and what I believe are the needs of this country, but I must also remember that my friend is not my enemy. In my relationships I will remember the power of empathy and sharing. In a time of political upheaval, we must connect with those with whom we disagree.

-Dr. Ryan

Filed under Family, Politics

Dr. Ryan Hooper is a Board Certified Clinical Psychologist, practicing in Chicago. He is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine as well as University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Medicine. He has worked with clients from many different backgrounds including veterans and professional athletes, as well as clients experiencing a wide-range of mental health struggles including Depressive and Anxiety Disorders, Substance Use Disorders, Trauma-related Disorders, and Psychotic Disorders.