Building Empathy Systematically

This talk by Megan Phelps-Roper is one of the most powerful and important TED Talks I’ve ever heard. These lessons are badly needed by me, by anyone who discusses politics or religion, by our president, probably by nearly everyone.

I continue to want to build some kind of system in which people could learn this way of thinking and practice with others with whom they would normally disagree. How could it be done? What protections would need to be in place?

I’m imagining technology at the moment (something that matches you up with non-anonymous people with whom you disagree about any political or religious issue, to have a friendly, civil conversation) but I’ve also imagined analogue methods of achieving the same thing.

I think each user would have to have “reputation” so the haters / trolls could be quickly weeded out (or steered towards those with proven experience dealing well with such attitudes).

If the system saw things were getting heated (A.I. detection?) it could prompt the users to shift gears / topics, pause the chat for 30 seconds. Or put up reminders about how to handle the uncomfortableness in a healthy way.

The key to the whole thing is that whatever happened, whether via technology or not, we maximize the parts of the experience that leave the other thinking, “that was a decent human being that I like, and with whom I happen to disagree sometimes.”

I’ve wondered if an analogue version of this would just use technology to match people up in certain geographic areas to meet in pre-selected, well lit, calm places (staffed with trained security) to converse over a table. Walk in, shake hands, talk for 30 minutes, and leave.

One hunch I have is that people who were new to these “empathy chats”, whether they were digital or in person, would be joined by a third person who was experienced. They would moderate and help steer and encourage, and set the tone when the two others were less certain.

I know this whole concept is pretty far out and more than a little harebrained. Likely very naïve or at least overly optimistic. But if you’ve read this far, I want to hear what you think. What are the strong points / weak points? What would prevent you from participating?

I originally posted this as a Twitter thread, but decided I wanted to also have it here on my blog.

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