People are at once different and alike; different in some ways, alike in others. It’s that unpredictable complexity that makes our diverse workplaces so interesting. Also, within that complexity there lies an opportunity to connect and, in turn, create the kind of inclusiveness that allows our workplaces to thrive.
That’s where Marlon Brando comes in. Well, not just Marlon Brando, but, more broadly, his primary acting influence – a Russian actor turned coach named Konstantin Stanislavsky.
Here’s what Stanislavsky was up to. He knew that the odds that an actor, even one as dedicated as Marlon Brando, would have actually lived the life of his character (Brando, for all his colorful personality, never was the head of an Italian crime family) are so remote that the only way for Brando to engage with the part is to ask himself this question: How would I feel if I had this character’s life experience?
There’s only one way an actor can answer that question – identify experiences of his/her own that approximate those of the character. In short, what came to be known as the “Magic If” allows one human being to engage emotionally with the experience of another.
Yes, the Magic If is “empathy” – the capacity for participating in or relating to another person’s feelings.
Relating to another person’s feelings is one of the most powerful tools in our inclusion toolbox. This practice goes far toward building relationships with people whom we believe in most ways to be different from ourselves. The results?
• Increased harmony in a diverse workplace
• An enhanced culture of inclusion
• Reduced biases and, therefore, an increased ability to see people as individuals
So, here’s the question we each need to ask: What emotions or experiences—positive or negative—have you had that are, to some degree, like those experienced by someone who otherwise seems different from yourself?
For those who question the possibility of achieving empathy between individuals whose experiences have been dramatically different in intensity, I relate to your skepticism. Full understanding of another’s life experience is elusive if, as my father used to say, you haven’t “been there”.
And, I’d add, even if you have been there, it is you that was there, not the other person. Everyone’s psychological terrain is different. Because of this, the fallout from a given experience will settle on each of us in a unique pattern—deeper here, just a dusting over there. For one person, the fallout may not stick at all; for someone else, it may pile so deep that it suffocates any chance of happiness.
In light of these differences, it’s lucky this statement is true: Full understanding is not a prerequisite to empathy. What we are after—and what we can realistically expect—is a reasonably well-considered grasp – a taste – of the essence of what the other person has felt or is feeling.
Take labor pains, for example. “You’d have to experience it to understand” is what my mother used to say about giving birth. It was as if one needed to be a member of an exclusive club to comprehend that particularly eloquent “discomfort” (as they called it in natural childbirth classes—hah!). I agree with my mother on this one: If you’ve never birthed a baby, you’ll never know the full nature of the “discomfort.” At the same time, it is still possible to “get it” enough to meet the needs of a woman in labor and to have an intelligent conversation about what she is experiencing.
To notch the pain down a peg or two (and broaden the metaphor to both genders), let’s talk about headaches. Everybody’s head hurts at one time or another. Some endure the steady drone of a tension headache, while others feel a burning sensation in their sinuses; for the most severely afflicted, their curse is the blinding agony of a migraine.
Having been blessed by the gods, I have never experienced a migraine headache; I have, however, had my share of tension. Because I haven’t “been there” with the pain of dilating capillaries, I am incapable of fully grasping my assistant’s suffering when a demon migraine comes to call. I have, however, tasted her discomfort through my tension headaches. So, with a little imagination, I can transport myself into a “virtual being there” and achieve what philosopher George Harris calls a state of “sympathetic emotional engagement”.
Like headaches, other pains and pleasures – emotional or physical – fall on a continuum, from slight to intense. It doesn’t matter where on that continuum our experience falls. What matters is that we have approximated it. That approximation just might be enough to create the connection, the conversation, the relationship, the inclusion that is our goal.
Thank-you Marlon Brando.
Addendum (Magic If Activity): “Did You Feel It, Too?”
Purpose: To create empathy between diverse groups based on similar experiences/emotions.
Facilitator Pre-Work: Prepare an instance from your own life that can serve as an example to the group.
Facilitation Note: It is suggested that the initial sharing described here be done in pairs, triads, or small groups. This step would be followed by discussion with the group as a whole. The event/emotion can be about any aspect of living—it does not have to have anything to do with bias or diversity—and it can be positive or negative.
1. Explain to the group the principle of the Magic If.
2. Divide the participants into pairs, triads, or small groups.
3. Instruct one person in each group to describe a positive or negative experience to which she had a strong emotional reaction. Emphasize that the most important part of this sharing is not so much the details of the story but the feelings that the event evoked.
4. As other members of the group listen to the story, they are to look within their own history to see if they have had similar experiences or have shared similar emotions.
5. If the group is divided, reconvene for discussion: What unexpected similarities did you uncover? How did this feel? What new empathy-based kinship groups did you identify?
6. Encourage participants, once they return to the workplace, to build on the commonalities that this activity has brought to light.
The material in this post reflects the ideas expressed in Dr. Thiederman’s book 3 Keys to Defeating Unconscious Bias and in the training videos Defeating Unconscious Bias: 5 Strategies and Gateways to Inclusion: Turning Tense Moments into Productive Conversations.
Sondra Thiederman can be contacted for in-person presentations, virtual facilitation, and panel participation by clicking here or calling 619-583-4478. For additional information, go to www.thiederman.com.
© copyright 2020 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
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