Mash's Musings

Develop empathy

Published May. 3, 2021

Develop empathy as a rational tool. To be truly rational is to choose the most effective method of persuasion.

In March 2019, I had one of the most eye-opening (pun intended) experiences of my life.

"For the next three minutes, gaze into your partner's eyes."

Partner, in this case, referred to a stranger who'd I'd spoken to for less than five minutes. Wasn't this supposed to be a course on rationality? The previous weeks covered topics such as mental models and Bayesian thinking so what was with this weird stuff? Mostly to avoid the greater embarrassment of sitting out, I played along.

The first few seconds were easy, our eyes met with a mutual acknowledgement of the comedy of the situation. The rest of the first minute ended up being an unspoken game of "Who will laugh first?" The discomfort of just gazing directly into a stranger's eyes for some reason made everyone in the room want to giggle, presumably in the hope that laughter would dissolve the awkwardness. It did not...

We get through the initial giggles and enter minute two. I stifled my laughter and intensified my gaze, doubling down on my resolve to make it through this without feeling totally emasculated. Somewhere within that second minute, I found myself smiling again, but this time not out of embarrassment. I noticed we're both smiling and that now there was a sense of warmth and comfort associated with it. My intensity turned to curiosity, "Who is this other human looking at me? How is she feeling? How did she come to be staring into my eyes today?" And of course, "Is she thinking what I'm thinking?"

The final minute ended far too quickly. By that time we were pointing out interesting features in each other's eyes and reflecting on how weird it is to be afraid of this. We're in the middle of sharing our life stories interrupted—"Time's up."

"Now for the next two minutes discuss how you felt but start each sentence with 'When you say that, I feel...' And state an actual feeling: confusion, excitement, embarrassment. None of this 'I feel like...' that we usually use, instead of actually sharing how we feel. Share your acutal feelings. We are always mentally preparing what we want to say next while the other person is talking, what they say is usually secondary. See how that changes now."

What followed was what I can only describe as a conversation with a friend of many years. Of the sort that you only have after you've spent hours catching up on the mundane. There was no shame in talking about my embarrassment or her intimidation, just open sharing of raw emotions. For the rest of that day, I found myself effortlessly engaged and attentive to whatever this stranger had to say. My posture had changed from its usual skepticism to an open curiosity. And incredibly, that instant reflex to start preparing what I wanted to say next had disappeared, I wanted to make sure I caught her every word first. In the span of five minutes, we'd accomplished what would normally take a couple hours of EDM music and a healthy dose of MDMA.

Up to that point in my life, my approach to persuading others involved presenting facts, setting up logical arguments, and calling out biases or fallacies. This was in line with my understanding of rationality: whoever presented the most undeniable evidence was right. I was, of course, always right so cue my confusion at my general inability to persuade almost anyone. I would occassionally convince a close friend of something or another, often begrudgingly, so I chalked up the rest of my failed attempts to the irrationality of the other party; they just weren't thinking about things the right way.

But what I learned that day in the rationality course was that being truly rational meant meeting other people where they were at. Once you take even a little bit of time to build empathy, making yourself understood becomes easy. My decision to continue my debate-style approach despite its horrendous success demonstrated my irrationality first and foremost. Being rational involved understanding others' perspectives in their own words before attempting to change them. In my childish world view, I had conflated correctness with rationality, and ended up often missing the mark on both.

After that day, I immediately dove in to Marshall Rosenberg's work on Nonviolent Communication, the source of inspiration for the exercises. While going through the motions felt painfully awkward and forced, the results were truly remarkable. Without even having the conversations, I felt as if I understood people better, revitalizing my posture towards relationships I'd soured for many years. I tried eagerly to recommend it to anyone within earshot but pitching a YouTube video of an old man wearing hand puppets is admittedly not an easy sell. Reassuringly however, after reading Never Split the Difference and How to Win Friends and Influence People, I realized that all these books were saying the same thing, tailored to different audiences. A hostage negotiator, a self-help guru, and an international peacemaker all had the same basic truth: that people need to be understood to change, and the only way to get there is to listen without trying to be heard. Develop empathy as a rational tool. To be truly rational is to choose the most effective method of persuasion.