This sense of openness that comes from being vulnerable creates a safety for others. Fragility or perfection are not associated with vulnerable reasonables. They are constantly in the process of shedding societal messages that promote a false sense of self. Self is not perfect, it has not arrived, and it cannot be bought. Therefore, reasonables take a stance of curiosity, compassion, and an honest desire to understand. Vulnerability invites us to be enough, to shed a sense of superiority or righteousness, and listen intently to what others offer the world.
It is not easy and it is a daily practice of reminding ourselves that we are confidently enough and what we offer should be shared. The most vulnerable are also who history deems the most brave or transformative. In art, Pablo Picasso was remarkably open about his contribution to art, “I could draw like Raphael when I was young, but it has taken me my whole life to learn to draw like a child.” Picasso, born a gifted artist, recognized that his chosen art, Cubism, took hours of practice and did not come easy to him. He also collaborated with other artists to create Cubism and make it a place in art history. Brene Brown says, “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” Reasonables ask what their truth is and know where it comes from. They are experts in their own ideas, are courageous to share their ideas and be open to hearing others.
Empathy isn’t about fully relating to someone’s unique circumstances. Empathy is about understanding. To understand is to relate to an element of the situation and consider what those circumstances would feel like. Atticus Finch says it best in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” reasonables don’t think that they could possibly understand every element to a person’s situation, but they do pause to relate and consider how this situation could make one feel.
Unfortunately we have response patterns that diminish the ability to understand. When in a heated discussion, as a de-escalation tactic, people may respond with, “I understand your frustration, but…” there are two glaring problems with this phrase within the context of crucial conversations.
This phrase is taught as a tactic. It will be delivered without thought much like our response to the question, “How are you?” The automation of “fine” as an answer underscores how detrimental using any line, especially one with supposed empathetic language in it, can be. Using taglines as a tactic sets a person up to be automated, more concerned about their next line rather than responding appropriately to what was expressed. In fact, the more the phrase, “I understand,” is repeated, the more it negates actual understanding and builds frustration with others. The conversation becomes misaligned between meaning and action. Donna Flagg writes in her article, When Words and Behaviors Don’t Match, “If our external self has not developed a relationship with our internal self, they will operate independently until we actively begin to familiarize them with one another and integrate.” If the internal self is not activated to self assess, listen, consider, and reign in the external self, then we will continue to give formulaic answers where thoughtful responses belong.”
The second problem is with the conjunction “but.” Communications studies have proven that anything said after the word “but” in a sentence negates that which precedes it. “I understand your frustration, but if you would just calm down and listen…” or, “You are clearly upset, but there isn’t anything I can do about it,” or “I see your point but I am wondering about this other perspective.” The result of the words, is not actual understanding or connection, rather a twisting and dismissing the claim or concern. Often “but” represents a dismissal, a discrediting, or a defensive attitude that is counter to the encouragement of reasonable discourse meant to further understanding and empathy.
Empathy and understanding are not synonymous. Understanding does not always encapsulate empathy. To have empathy for another is to recognize all aspects of a person’s situation without projection of one’s own experiences. To empathize is to see the circumstances, recognize the differences of this particular experience, and holistically comprehend how that exact moment must feel for the other person. Understanding is following the logical reasoning and validating that, indeed, you understand the situation, the purpose of the comments, the instructions given.
One of the rawest units I taught was on white privilege. As people started having vulnerable conversations about experiences with bias and racism, a division naturally formed. People of color talked about conversations in which they were asked where they were from, no really where are you from and their answer of Minnesota was disappointing. Another talked about how it feels to explain over and over why he is in a wheelchair. And another talked about being trailed in stores because she is black. Then a caucasian male student said, “But I don’t understand,” and his peer, an Iranian-American Muslim woman said, “It’s okay. How could you possibly understand?”
After class he came to me and said, “I’m white.” as if it was a discovery. He felt guilty, he felt unsettled. I reassured him that he had nothing to feel guilty about and instead to think about what his privilege afforded him. I asked if he ever felt guilty for being tall. He shook his head no. Privilege is like that, it isn’t something you claimed or took from someone, it is something you have. So what will you do with it?
He nodded and walked away. The class continued to talk for the next three weeks and he would bring questions and grapple with his feelings about his privilege and the lack of access for others. He wasn’t trying to be anything he wasn’t. Instead, he was trying to understand how others must feel when denied what he could easily, and had, taken for granted. At seventeen, this student was diving into humanity and wanting to understand his place and his peers’ places within the sea. He continued to ask questions, he continued to read and learn. He considered what he offered the conversation as a white male.
He is one of my favorite reasonables. His want for empathy and his dedication to understanding are admirable and brave. He made himself vulnerable. He observed, and he listened.
Goalies are a special breed. It doesn’t matter what sport, they are the last person between the other team and the goal. Their actions determine whether it results in a win or loss. Both my boys play lacrosse. The youngest has wanted to play goalie since he started. At first, he asked once at the beginning of the season and then let it go. He continued to play wherever the coaches put him and gained confidence and skills on the field, but he still wanted to be in goal. His third year of play, he asked coach to put him in goal every day at practice and at every game. It didn’t often happen, but when he finally got in the goal, he let his instincts take over. Because he is willing to take shot after shot, and doesn’t let a score affect the next shot, he is a really good goalie. He gets into the zone where he acts on trained instinct.
When we talk after a game, he talks about the speed, form of the shooter, or bounce of the ball change the way he responses. He is willing to put in the time to study the sport, willing to practice hours on his ball handling skills, and is curious about how field dynamics change the energy of the game. Reasonables, as they enter contentious conversations need to have the willingness of a goalie. The trained ability to activate LACE UP and respond to what they see on “field” or in the “ring.”
Learning starts with an openness to possibility. The possibility that we always have room and capacity to learn something new. That openness leads to curiosity for the sake of understanding without an agenda. Within the context of reasonables, staying open and learning objectively helps build empathy.
Kelly Lyndgaard explained to a group of women in Minnesota how she sat in church and did not expect to have her entire life’s purpose shift when she learned about the Walter Hoving Home, a women’s center for recovering addicts, but she knew it had. A piece of her heart, filled with judgement for those who suffer from addiction or find themselves in prison, quickly emptied and made way for a passionate response to a simple question, “How will I raise the money necessary to support these women as they recover?”
Her answer came in the form of a purse.
Kelly took apart a jacket she inherited from her grandfather to make into a bag and honor him by using it, instead of having it hang in the back of the closet. She breathed life into the lifeless and that spark became Unshattered.
Unshattered, a 501c3, helps women in the Hoving Home learn valuable job skills as they continue their personal journeys on the road of recovery. Established in 2013, Kelly started by teaching women to sew. By 2016, the staff of Unshattered took custom orders for family heirlooms, were commissioned to create bags out of old fatigues for West Point, and were creating art inception with Broadway backdrops.
Kelly took what she learned and didn’t look away. She pushed into the pain of these women’s stories and became determined to show them their worth one stitch, one purse, one dollar at a time. This is what willing can result in: changed lives for all, not some. She was willing to be open to learning about the struggle and journey of addiction and get curious about how she could help. The same sort of curiosity we expect to see in a research lab.
The best part of Research and Development (R&D) is that the expectation is to get it wrong before getting it right. Labs are beautiful places where any question or hypothesis is welcome. Consider the scientists on the big screen. When something goes wrong, they don’t throw in the towel and walk away, instead they say, “Curious,” and then try to figure out why it happened the way it did. Reasonables recognize that every idea cemented as belief and called truth is actually grounded in perception. If given new, trusted information, beliefs can shift. It doesn’t mean that we are hypocrites or flaky, it just means that new evidence, new information, a new experiment, gave new results to consider with a sense of curiosity.
Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, original hosts of the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, demonstrate the level of curiosity needed by reasonables. In an interview with common sense media, Hyneman describes the premise of the show in saying, “Science, if that is what it is, is not reserved for people in lab coats. It’s something that involves questions and being methodical about getting answers. So anybody of any age that is simply curious can do that.” Although the show deals with questions mostly about the physical and tangible, the philosophy fits for reasonables. “The best we can hope for is to be thought provoking, and in many cases we are. Are we definitive about the answers we put out there about myths? No. But we pose some interesting questions and deal with those questions in creative ways, and hopefully that gets people thinking and we’ll be happy if it does.”
Reasonable are everyday people who are willing to take a breath and consider, is this a helpful response? They are the people willing to see anger as secondary to something deeper and more raw than the visceral reaction. They are the ones who pause, perhaps quietly disagree, and then back up arguments with sound examples and facts. reasonables can LACE UP quickly and discern when and how to enter the fray.