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Empathy is more relevant than ever before

NOTE: This article was originally written by Dom in early 2020. Things changed pretty dramatically very soon after. The call for empathy is stronger than ever. We need less division and more understanding. Sadly Dom did not get to sit next to many more people on a train in 2020. 

Like many parents of young children, I’ve spent plenty time warning my kids about the risks of talking to strangers. And for good reason.

But over Christmas, reflecting on 2019, I realised that one of my personal stand out experiences in the past year actually came from doing the exact opposite.

On a train from Newcastle to London I got into a conversation with the man sitting opposite me. A complete stranger, I never got his name. It started innocuously enough with the usual pleasantries about the purpose of our respective trips as we settled into our seats.

And it could have easily ended there, with one of us putting in headphones, picking up a phone to tap away at or each of us just spending the next three hours looking out of the window and trying to avoid eye contact.

This time that didn’t happen. The conversation continued. Honestly? My initial impulse was probably to find a way to politely excuse myself and pick up my book. After all, three hours on a train is a golden reading opportunity for me. But the man opposite was more determined than me to engage and so we did.

We ended up covering a huge range of topics, I’m sure some of the other people in the carriage must have wondered what on earth we were on about. We discussed, among other things, the evolution of political leadership, the role of the media in shaping culture, cognitive bias and how this might affect AI, the impact of automation in the jobs market, how to use data responsibly and respectfully, social justice and inevitably of course, Brexit.

So far so good.

What completely transformed the experience for me was the fact that it soon became apparent just how much we fundamentally disagreed with each other.

And it was this underlying disagreement that created the true value in our conversation. Because the disagreement didn’t shut the conversation down, it had the opposite effect. It drove it on.

It allowed me to explore and understand a very viewpoint to my own. To have my views and beliefs questioned and challenged and to offer a similar challenge. Not in a confrontational battle to be right, not in a soundbite war of words. But in a mutually respectful and engaged context. We both listened, allowed time for points to made, enjoyed the challenges and tried to rise to them and respond.

Time flew and three hours later we arrived into London and went our separate ways.

Did it change my views or beliefs? No, to be honest, it didn’t. Not at all. But that wasn’t the point.

So here is my point, I think. It’s fairly obvious when I stop and think about it. But how often do we stop and think about it?

The value of talking to a stranger from a very different walk of life to mine with very different views, didn’t change my views, it enriched them.

It increased my understanding and insights into different perspectives. It helped me see things through someone else’s eyes. Not to agree with what they were saying, but to get a better appreciation of why they might think and feel the way they do. To recognise that there are other perspectives out there and that I can learn something from them. And that’s a really valuable experience.

Too often these days and particularly in recent years we’ve seen how divisive issues can become. And in the battle to resolve them we fall into a ‘them and us’ camp. Where the starting premise of discussion is to prove ‘we’ are right and ‘they’ are wrong. It’s a pure binary approach where the principles of debate are sacrificed for the strategies of combat.

The world is rarely this black and white in reality.

The more we reduce complex and important questions and issues to a simple right or wrong, the more we reduce the space and opportunities for collaboration, compromise and, also, the innovative new solutions that can occur when different perspectives combine to solve a common problem.

There is rightly much discussion about diversity in the boardroom, the risks of groupthink, the need for culture that embraces difference and there is a considerable body of research that points to the benefits this offers.

Yet how often do we put this into practice in our lives? How often do we seek out, create and embrace the opportunities to have our own ideas, beliefs and feelings challenged and tested?

It took a series of random events to put the two of us together on that train at that time in those seats, but once we were there I guess it also took openness from each of us to enter into a dialogue that has stayed with me long after we arrived into Kings Cross.

Life does give us those moments. At one point during the journey I walked down the train and looked at everyone else sitting in chosen isolation, headphones in, laptops on, screens stared at (probably those around us wishing we’d shut up). Often I’m one of them. But that afternoon all I could see were missed opportunities for people to talk to each other, genuinely listen and talk, share their experiences.

It doesn’t have to be profound, it doesn’t have to tackle the big issues of the day. It’s about sharing our perspectives and experiences, but also listening to those of others. And maybe discovering something about ourselves in the process.

So that’s why I’ve made one of my new year’s resolutions (along with all the usual ones!) to talk to strangers more often. Rest assured I will not be encouraging my children to do the same at this stage.

It may not always be so interesting or easy, it may be challenging, uncomfortable, awkward. It may go nowhere.

But I know that if I don’t try, I’ll never know.

Here’s to a 2020 that’s built on a little more empathy.

If you find yourself sitting opposite me on a train you have been warned.