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Robust Empathy through Two-Footed Questions

Holidays and emotionally driven elections can add stress and even threaten to tip our tiny vessel into their unpredictably choppy seas. Such charged events also open new possibilities to heal the humanity within each of us, beyond campaign wrangling, in spite of family feuds and past national regrets.

Luckily our brains come with practical tools  to re-shape our hearts on the other side of grief.  Fortunately, we can focus our minds in ways that rebuild a caring culture through empathy we’d like others to see in us. We unleash the brain’s hidden and often unused ability to shift directions when we question options on the other side of where we stand,  in ways that awaken new possibilities. Even one step can activate the brain’s chemical or electrical engines to propel us into new domains we’d otherwise miss.

Did you know that your brain makes new  connections and forges life-changing neuron pathways toward each step you take in a different direction? How so?

Imagine deep conversations about GIVING on opposite sides of personal gains. Consider the wonder of CARE that let’s go of exclusion. See feet put to LOVE that dances past grudges. Imagine KINDNESS on an opposite corner of judging or envision the kind of CONTENTMENT that bats last, and chooses to outrun disappointment. Did I just say, choose…?

OK, a two-footed question might ask then: How would a new narrative for robust empathy, change what we say and do for those around us today? Not that it’s easy or that we always get it right, yet we still choose to risk that first tiny step toward a better place for ourselves and others.

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness,  Desmond Tutu said.  Light shafts at the Mita Brain Center often illuminate insights from within a two-footed, “What if we…” kind of challenge as we chase down the hope we all crave to inch forward from where we stand to where we hope to arrive. It also weaves civility, forgiveness and kindness into our discourse with others along our way.

My graduate students and I literally jump into challenges with two feet as we build a caring community that dares one another to understand and care about opposite sides of sizzling issues. It’s counterpoint to fear or stress, in that it doses us all with serotonin, the brain’s aha chemical for innovative choices forward.

No denying, we often differ on mind-bending topics. As much as day differs from the night that tags along and nudges its way in sometimes before we’re ready. In fact we support and encourage such disruptions that tend to come in unexpected melodies.  Our unique questions though propel us to spot new insights and learn from differences on the other side of fixed mindsets. You could say we tether our wagons to a shared star, which holds wellbeing for all – and ignites a full range of intelligences  along the way. It works.

One graduate student from Palestine stretched imaginations further,  when he asked, “Then what question could create and sustain peace in the Middle East?” Almost without hesitation a peer shot back, “How could each person at the table begin to see and clearly articulate the other’s point of view from that person’s eyes, in the interest of building peace together?” That’s it! In fact, it led us to wonder,  Could such robust empathy also help to heal our deeply divided nation? 

Two-footed questions help us heal human hurts by prompts such as –

1). How would you design a model community in which most people benefit, given the challenges we face?

2). What beliefs do you hold that show others how you value and even celebrate their unique beliefs too?

3). What would you like the rest of us to know about your beliefs or goals and what would you like to know about other’s beliefs?

In valued leadership circles that juncture (of caring about the other side with compassion for humans who embody it) launches  delightful new directions, again and again for every participant. Notice that I did not say we have to agree with those on the opposite side, in order to care about them and learn from them. To that end, we’ve discovered that it’s far easier to choose a respectful rhetoric when articulating meaningful insights from an opposite side with a genuine desire to “listen with our brains.”

The simple reach for clarity, tends to toss new motives into the mix, such as  compassion and a deep desire to understand any hurt each person feels, who expresses hopes on another side of our beliefs.

In any group (or nation) our two-footers help us to step beyond the notion that there is one “good” and one “bad” side, and we stand on the “good” side while other folks  flaunt the “bad.” Only then can we begin to grapple with why so many hurting people feel left behind, ignored or misunderstood as a nation races past them or families forget to care. Have you seen or experienced it?

In my leadership classes, toxic rhetoric is unacceptable on any side, ALL topics are welcomed at the table at all times, and 2-footed questions help us to “see as well as articulate clearly stated issues through each person’s eyes.” It works well for us and it might be worth a shot at cobbling empathy for those who stand on all sides of issues we treasure passionately. From the brain’s perspective, passion simply calls for a tamed amygdala that makes space for empathy in response.

Curiosity awakens that hope for understanding. Two footed probes, simply toss in another possibility to address disappointments many feel after an election that goes against their beliefs. Two-footed questions also transform holiday gatherings from war zones, into robust empathy with two feet forward to care.

When parents or children crave love in kindness, ask, for instance:

1). What one specific thing or quality did you value most about your mom or dad and why did you appreciate that?

2). What one lesson did you enjoy learning most from your son or daughter and how do you use that positively in your life?

See any room for empathy in responses two feet invite?

We often make most difference when we avoid pitfalls of the we-they rhetoric – and choose instead to address the hurts of those left behind by kindness or care. Let’s face it, most parents know they’ve failed their kids in spite of loving them forever. And most children wish for unconditional love, simply for who they are. Could two-footed questions help broken people reach into robust empathy and become more of what  children, parents and humans need us to be for them? Do two feet free up love, kindness or caring as enough – or as expressed with genuine empathy that heals?

Two-footed queries invite us to grapple together as we try on a few new possibilities that will uphold truth, insist on fairness for all, and promote understanding and goodwill together for the greatest number of people. Even before neuro discoveries affirmed that brains change and develop only as we apply and act, Leonardo Da Vinci stated, “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.

Ready to do what it takes to become the care-focused renewal most humans crave in any circle? My recent book of 256 two-footed questions covers 64 popular topics that my  circles value most. You?

YOUR TURN! Join our Brain Based Circles! Would love to meet you at any of the following!

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Created by Ellen Weber, Brain Based Tasks for Growth Mindset

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1 Comment to “Robust Empathy through Two-Footed Questions”

I especially appreciate your two-footed question, “How would a new narrative for robust empathy change what we say and do for those around us today?” This one question, asked and answered daily in our words and actions, could change the world!

Thank you for this thoughtful and meaningful post, and for sharing Desmond Tutu’s beautiful quote, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”