Politics

Empathy, Dialogue and Building Bridges


In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Christy Vines, president and CEO of Ideos, about empathy as distinct from emotions, why solving the problem is better than winning the debate, the importance of knowing other people’s stories and much more.

BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today we have Christy Vines joining us for a conversation in our series on liberalism. Christy is the president and CEO of Ideos. She is a former senior adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, and is the founder and former executive director of the Center for Women, Faith and Leadership, and senior vice president for Global Initiatives and Strategy at the Institute for Global Engagement in Washington, D.C. Honestly, we could spend the rest of the podcast listing basically all the items on her impressive CV, but her work and expertise lie at the intersection of faith, social and cultural polarization and conflict transformation. Thank you for joining us today.

CHRISTY VINES: You make me sound way more impressive than I actually am, [laughs] so that’s a very high bar.

The Way of Empathy

KLUTSEY: You are certainly impressive. I want to talk about Ideos and the important work that you’re doing there. But before that, let’s talk about empathy, which is central to what Ideos does. What is the way of empathy?

VINES: Great question, and great way to start the conversation. I’m going to back up a little bit, before we jump into the way of empathy, by talking about empathy. I give a lot of credit to Brené Brown, everybody’s favorite professor, as she really brought this idea or even the concept of empathy into a more modern conversation.

I love Brené Brown, but this is the one place that I take exception with her, and largely with the way in which most people think about empathy. Most people, when you use the word empathy, they think of a soft skill. Sometimes I actually say it’s for a lot of people like a warm blanket. It’s this idea of understanding the perspective or seeing through the perspective of someone else or walking in their shoes.

I argue that point, because if you have no concept or background or experience or any data that would help you understand their perspective or understand what it’s like to be in their shoes, then really, it’s—you’re putting your own self into that scenario. So it’s through your own lens, and so it’s never really authentic. Empathy tends to, when people think about it, rely heavily on emotion. And our brains are wired in such a way that our emotions emanate out of our own experience and our own worldview and the biases that we hold.

We generally tend to empathize from an emotional perspective with people who are like us, and have a really challenging time empathizing with people not like us. What we are trying to prove through our work, and how we define empathy is different as a way of mitigating or limiting the impact of emotion. And that is, we think of it as a strategic way of living and engaging with people and issues around us. It’s much more akin to critical thinking than it is to the soft-skill idea or this emotion that we have toward other people.

That has really led us to this idea of the way of empathy. Now, I’ll give a caveat: The way of empathy is equally applicable in and outside of religious or Christian context, but it is grounded in a Christian worldview. I always say I plagiarized it, because ultimately, it’s just the model of Christ on earth. So it’s nothing that I made up or can take credit for. The way of empathy is this idea that when we engage with things around us that are different—and that could be as different as, in a relationship with a family member, so not seeing eye-to-eye or trying to understand why they behave or think differently than we do (or we would like, even), all the way to big-picture global issues.

It starts with the idea that so often we pay attention to the things that matter to us, but not necessarily the things that don’t matter to us, which very much constricts and constrains what we pay attention to. The way of empathy starts with paying attention to the things that are outside of ourselves. That has to be an intentional, active decision we make throughout the day. Once you’re paying attention, the next extension of that is proximity, which is the second pillar. You can’t be proximal to people, you can’t be proximal to ideas, you can’t be proximal to experiences different or outside of your own self, unless you’re paying attention. Otherwise it’s accidental.

We are trying to really push empathy as an intentional exercise and also a skill-building and muscle-building exercise. Proximity puts you right next to, right in the center of experiences, people, ideas outside of yourself. It challenges you to move outside of your comfort zone. And ultimately, it’s what lends itself to then this idea of perspective taking, because now you’re closer also to the stories of people and the lived experiences that are behind their perspectives, behind their behaviors, behind their attitudes.

Once you get a better sense of understanding those stories, have a better idea of what’s behind those things, then the next pillar and the next step is really this idea of humility. Not humility from a traditional way of thinking about humility, although that’s true, too. But this understanding that there’s so much more to learn, so much more out there that you have no idea about. It’s a generative type of humility that says, “Wow, I only know what I know. And so many other people have experienced things I’ve never experienced. What can I learn from them? How does that enhance my own understanding of these big issues that we’re all grappling with, as well as just better understanding them?” That’s the idea of humility.

Then finally, the final step in the way of empathy is this idea of sacrifice. That somehow when I now understand these stories, I’ve been proximal to all of these different ideas, these different experiences that people have, hopefully I also want to do something when there’s a need. Because now somehow the neuroscience, our brains are wired to now be connected to them in a different way. And there’s so much work around storytelling, and even how that influences us.

By the time you get to the end of the way of empathy, hopefully by being more empathetic—or empathically intelligent, as we would say—you actually then respond to needs, respond to the big issues and also the people that are out there differently.

Empathy in Disagreement

KLUTSEY: Really interesting. I was wondering as you were speaking, can you apply this way of thinking, the way of empathy, to someone that you might consider to be unjust? We had a good conversation with Robert Talisse at Vanderbilt, and he talked about something called the democratic dilemma, which is the notion that in a democratic society everyone should pursue the causes that they care about.

We’re also supposed to consider one another as dignified equals, and as we’re pursuing our causes and engaging in the things that we care about, we have to also interact and engage with people who are our dignified equals. However, sometimes we might consider someone, their ideas or their way of life, whatever it is, to be unjust. And as a result, we are unable to engage with them as equals. We don’t want to hear their voices at all. Is it possible to apply empathy in that situation?

VINES: I would actually probably argue that empathy is the only way that you can engage with people like that. One caveat that I always say when people ask about empathy is, empathy is not approval or acceptance, and so it’s not an agreement with somebody else. You can actually have empathy for somebody—in, again, the strategic way that we define it—without necessarily agreeing with or approving of the behavior or even the perspectives or attitudes that they have.

What’s really important—and this is where the generative part of empathy or empathic intelligence comes from—is better understanding the why behind their position or their beliefs or actions is not necessarily about them; it’s about you. Because you can be much more strategic, you can be much more—I hate to use the word empathic in the definition of empathy—but this idea of being more empathic, because you’re open to understanding what’s behind it.

Now, many have argued that because of this aspect of empathy or empathic intelligence, it can also be exploitative, and it has been. It has been exploitative. In fact, I tell people, there’s a whole system that we use, a process we use called empathy mapping. And so it’s identifying when you’re looking at social issues, or even communities, what’s happening.

Empathy mapping was perfected actually by the tech industry. When they are developing products, they go through an empathy-mapping exercise to better understand the consumer, which also helps them create a product that will hook the consumer, because they understand not just who their consumer is, but what’s behind what their needs and wants and desires are. And so they can tap into that.

Obviously, we all love our iPhones, and we all love our tech, our apps and all of these tech advances, but they can also be harmful. We’ve seen how they can be harmful with children who become addicted and things like that. It can be equally as exploitative when wielded for evil. But hopefully the idea of being more empathically intelligent leads us to not just understand better people who are more like us, but really the people who are on the opposite side from us. Because then we understand how to engage in real dialogue, real conversation, and hopefully—that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to agree at the end—but moves us a little bit closer toward actually solving a problem rather than just debating or fighting it out.

KLUTSEY: I see. Really interesting. What you were saying just reminded me of Daryl Davis. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. He’s a musician who had lots and lots of conversations with the members of the Ku Klux Klan and managed to get a number of them to leave the Klan and denounce them and so on and so forth. I assume that there was some empathic intelligence at play there with his engagements.

VINES: Absolutely. What’s interesting in that process—and there’s so many stories out there like this—is that he didn’t go in to attack them. Often we think about change or people who we see as “the enemy” or antithetical to what we are trying to create in the world—we think that we have to debate in this win-lose paradigm. One, it just simply does not work in a democracy.

Two, it is generally a fruitless exercise because the minute somebody feels like they’re being attacked, their only response is defense. There’s no openness to exploring ideas, including yours. We actually promote this idea of empathic intelligence as a way of not just moving ideas forward, not just moving people closer together, but actually even going as far as policy change.

KLUTSEY: I see. Interesting. Now tell us about Ideos.

VINES: Ideos—we’re a four-year-old organization, so very young, which was founded or started with the idea that we were going to be engaging in more of a global context around conflict. The empathy and this idea of empathic intelligence was a way of bringing leaders and stakeholders together to help solve problems. Very quickly, because we were founded in 2018, very quickly, we were drawn into the domestic American context.

Ultimately what we do is we are helping to create a world filled with empathically intelligent people, but even more so empathically intelligent leaders who then have the ability to influence hundreds if not thousands of people over the course of their lifetime. That’s at the essence of what we do. We do it through lots of different ways, but that is ultimately the goal that we have.

Empathy and Leadership

KLUTSEY: You mentioned leaders. I’m curious to get your take on what you think the status of leadership right now is in the United States.

VINES: Well, I can tell you that broadly, the United States ranks incredibly low on the global empathy index. Whenever I say that, people go, “There’s a global empathy index?” I say, “Yes.” We do not produce it, but I don’t think it would surprise anybody that right now the U.S. ranks pretty low. I think what has happened, especially when we think of leadership—and this isn’t just an outcome of the last four or six or even eight years; this has actually been a slowly building culture shift in the country—where we see change, we see decision-making as a zero-sum game.

You look at even most of the ways in which business schools teach the idea of business, even a lot of leadership curricula focus on decision-making and even, in some ways, negotiation. While it might be mediated, it might be moderated, it might be a get-to-yes kind of approach, ultimately, the ultimate goal is to win. I think that has infused our culture broadly. It’s no surprise that even during COVID or during the last several elections, social media has been used as a platform or a playground for people to push back against other ideas with the goal of silencing the other and having their perspective or idea become preeminent.

It’s where cancel culture comes from and all of those things. While I understand it, because it’s often grounded in this idea that the way I believe or my worldview is right. But when you assume that, it obviously by extension means somebody else is wrong. Certainly, that can have huge implications.

This isn’t to minimize the fact that there are lots of things in the world that are wrong and where people are harmed as a result. This isn’t to say that somehow we should forget that, or that everything is a long-term negotiation. But ultimately, we can become more effective even in our leadership, in our decision-making, in our influence, when we better understand the people with whom we’re engaging, or even those we’re trying to convince that they are wrong.

It’s not necessarily that. We get lots of questions about, how do you address unrighteousness? How do you address evil that exists in the world? I would say, and from a spiritual context, like I said, we took the way of empathy and this idea because of both the incarnation of Christ, but also the fact that he walked the earth as a man. And this idea that he really wanted to understand what it was to be human in order to better engage and deliver his message.

I think that’s ultimately what we are trying to also add out into the world, is this idea that the more empathic you become, the more influential you become. And the more you can argue or have a dialogue or even influence people in a more effective way, in a way that connects with what really matters to them, what their values are. But if you never understand that, then you’re constantly only addressing them or addressing the issue from your perspective, around the things that matter to you. That’s not generally—in long range, that’s just not effective.

Tools for Building Empathy

KLUTSEY: Practically, how do you teach leaders to do this? I find this incredibly interesting.

VINES: Yes. We have several activities. We take them through a series of—we call it embodied experiences. I often say that most of us recognize when we’re at that point where we’re ready to debate and defend because there’s a physical response that happens in the body before any action happens, before any words come out of your mouth. What we try to do is use exercises that also create responses physically so that they also almost become signs that I am heading in the right direction. It’s trying to replace those—your stomach boiling, or you get that heat happening, or as I say, your hackles up. We’re trying to replace that.

For example, we take people through an exercise first when they come together, because often these are people who either are strangers or there has been some reason why they come to us. [chuckles] It’s usually not because there’s a lot of kumbaya moments happening in their environment, whether that’s their company, their community, their organization, sometimes even their family.

And we do an icebreaker that’s literally called finding common ground, but about all of the things that generally don’t matter. Something as easy as, what are your favorite colors? What’s your favorite season? What’s your favorite movie genre? But things that help to humanize the other person and bring down the stress. It’s also something that helps, that gives them a skill or a tool that then they can use in other environments to say, how do we break the tension before we start having real conversation about the things that matter?

The second thing we use is called the story exchange, and we did not—so many organizations use this. Narrative 4, which is an organization that has really perfected the idea of the story exchange. What it is, is we all know storytelling is incredibly powerful and influential. It helps us see one another as fellow humans. It breaks down those immediate barriers that we have when we hear somebody else’s story. There’s a neuroscientific process that happens not just when we hear somebody’s story, but when we actually are responsible for them telling their story in the first person.

If I was telling your story, Ben, you would share your story with me in a story exchange. I would be listening, because it would be my responsibility at the end of that to then share your story with the broader group using the first person. I would say, “My name is Ben,” and I would tell your story as if I were you. What that does is actually—it’s great for other people hearing your story, of course. But what it does is the brain actually starts to consider, first, the fact that I’m telling somebody’s story that’s not mine. It’s now accumulating data about me, Ben—not me, Christy—so that adds some data that’s really important.

Really, the first impact that this has is that when you are telling me your story and I’m just listening to it, I am filtering everything you’re telling me about your story through my lens. I’m already thinking about, “Well, how does this fit with my worldview? Does this match with my beliefs and values?” I’m already making judgments about you based on your story.

If I have to tell your story, my brain doesn’t have time or space to think about any of that because it has to deeply listen to understand your story, because now I’m responsible for it. When we become responsible for somebody else’s story, even if it’s just telling their story, it does something to the way, not only which I see you, Ben, but in the way I see people who you represent. There’s so much research that has shown that with a story exchange—and this is what you see so much in peace-building environments—it does more than just humanize the person that I’m telling the story about. It also humanizes the people you represent.

That could be as much along the lines of gender, race, religion—if we’re talking about global conflict, a tribal or a regional community or identity. But it changes the way I see more than just you. It has implications that are incredibly broad. Now, it’s not going to take somebody who’s anti-whatever—just fill in the blank—and turn them into a complete convert. But it does make small incremental changes.

What we really encourage lots of leaders to do is to do these kinds of story exchanges. For example, if you’re a corporate head, this is something you should do with every single person that works for you that you’re responsible for. You now have just accumulated—let’s say you’ve got 100 people in your employ; you now have 100 stories that you’ve now just told. It changes the way you see every single one of them. When that person leaves and somebody else comes in, it also has already changed the way you may see that person.

Past the Point of No Return?

KLUTSEY: Well, that is interesting. We started on Ideos, and you said that the goal was to look at things globally. But then noticing what was happening in America, you decided to focus your efforts a lot here in the U.S. What’s your prognosis for what’s happening in America?

[laughter]

VINES: Well, I didn’t come here to depress everybody, but for those of us who’ve worked in global conflict, there is a conflict ladder that is pretty well subscribed to. It shows the steps or stages of conflict, anywhere from just this idea of having a difference of opinion, all the way up to all-out war and violence. For many of us who have been doing global work, we’ve always applied this model outside of the U.S. For the first time, many of us have now had to apply it to the U.S. I think that has been concerning for many of us for a long time.

I think what’s become more concerning is there are two points along the continuum that are points of no return. The first one is really this idea of when you get to the dehumanization stage, it is really hard without significant intervention to humanize those people again. That’s typically where most of us come in or engage with most conflict is at that moment, to prevent all-out violence.

The second stage is really this idea of when we not only dehumanize, but we have this us-versus-them mentality and ideas that go along with it, that pretty much signal to our brains that this is not manageable. That there is no turning back, and the only way to achieve our ends is through violence. We are creeping up really closely to that next stage.

I would argue, and I think most colleagues that work in this space would argue, that the U.S. is at a very vulnerable position right now. I actually caution a lot of people because language matters, and it speaks to us. The words we use actually tell our brain what’s happening in the world and how to prepare. I’ve noticed a lot of people, whether it’s in politics, whether it’s in religious communities, but even just common everyday conversations and media exchanges, the context is a battle, that we are in a battle for X, whatever X is.

Whether we’re in a battle for our rights and freedoms, we’re in a battle for truth and factual information—everything is now in the context of very strong conflict language. What that then signals to our own brains, and to the brains of others who are consuming that information, is that we are preparing for war. It’s not surprising when you see parts of the country that are now arming themselves against, for many of them, an unknown enemy at this point. Their brains have been told, for years now, that we are preparing for a battle. And so why are we surprised when people arm themselves and prepare for one?

KLUTSEY: We see each other as threats.

VINES: Very much so.

KLUTSEY: It’s interesting. Kevin Vallier, who was also part of the series, he has a book called “Trust in a Polarized Age.” In that book, he talks about how across Western democracies, the United States has this deepest decline in social trust, how we think of one another, how we trust one another. What you’re saying really ties in with that point. That’s scary.

VINES: It is scary.

Debate vs. Dialogue

KLUTSEY: What’s the right language that we should use to talk about issues? I’m a fan of Adam Grant. His book “Think Again” is one that we’ve read as a team. In that book, he says when we get into discussions and engagements with people, we shouldn’t think of these things as debates or battles or what have you, but we should think of them as a dance.

That in a dance, one person—I guess it depends on the type of dance—but one person steps forward, one person steps back. You sidestep sometimes, you give one person a chance to twirl, but you’re giving each other some time, some space to express themselves. That back-and-forth tends to be helpful.

VINES: Yes. I 100% agree. We focus really heavily and we do a lot of training around dialogue. In fact, we produced an entire film, documentary film, about the power of dialogue in this polarized age, as a way not just of sharing what we do, but also proving to people that there is something different outside of debate. That the exchange of ideas can still happen, but the moment that we enter into a posture of debate, it immediately becomes a win-lose paradigm or dynamic. Again, going back to everything we said in the beginning, we immediately become set up to defend our position, which again, signals to your brain, we’re in a battle.

KLUTSEY: Yes. We’re in a fight.

VINES: For most of us, these issues are so important that people are literally ready to defend it to the death. We teach a whole different idea, which is this idea of dialogue. It’s—again, I love using the word generative because we train and teach people that you should always see dialogue and exchange of ideas or information as an opportunity to walk away with more than you entered into it with. If you haven’t done that, you actually have not dialogued. The minute that you create that shift, then I’m more curious about the person I’m engaged with than I am entering into that to just push my own perspective on them.

If I’m interested in their perspective so I can understand new ideas, new perspectives, even if I disagree with them, then I’m listening much more intently than if I’m in a debate posture. Generally, the only reason you listen in a debate is so that you can already be arming yourself with your next point to combat it. Again, even just the way we talk about debate already comes with conflict language. Dialogue is very different.

KLUTSEY: Can you talk about the National Day of Dialogue?

VINES: I can. We sponsored the first inaugural National Day of Dialogue back on January 5. It was really just an opportunity to share this idea of dialogue to inspire, in this context, other Americans to get out there and do this work to start building (what I would say) a long-atrophied muscle. Because it’s been long atrophied, it’s going to take a lot of time to build that muscle back up. This was just, again, a way of inspiring Americans, my fellow citizens, to start dialoguing again about the hard issues—about any issue, to be honest—and we were thrilled to have some incredible partners.

We had about 20 organizations that signed on to support us, and we held events throughout the day. So there were panel conversations; there were film premieres. We screened and premiered our film, “Dialogue Lab: America,” that day. There were opportunities for people to engage and get some skills training. It was just a full-on day all about dialogue, and this idea about how it changes us when we think about dialogue as a way of generating bigger ideas than we could have come up with ourselves.

We’re already gearing up for National Day of Dialogue 2023 and looking forward to having even more partners and more participants. Right now the world is our oyster because right now hardly anybody’s talking. Right now everybody’s a potential audience in need of this.

KLUTSEY: I wanted to double-click on the point you made about how dialogue has long atrophied. It’s a muscle that has atrophied, basically. Why do you think that is the case?

VINES: I just think we’ve become so used to debate as the go-to. I think we’re so wired as a culture to debate. You can look anywhere, turn on any news media, and it’s generally debate. Even when we think of how do we get to know our presidential candidates? It’s a debate. How much more interesting would it be if it was a collective conversation or dialogue about the issues that the American public cares about?

Not just to understand who should win our vote, but maybe also so that we can learn a little bit more about who the person is. And maybe actually walk away with a collective generative response or understanding of the issue, so that maybe there’s some policy solutions that just come out of even that conversation. I’m not sure we learn a ton about people when all we do is watch their debate style.

Lessons From Neuroscience

KLUTSEY: I think that’s right. Now, I know you’re a fan of neuroscience. What are some of the insights from neuroscience that can help us understand and inform how we see the challenges?

VINES: That’s an excellent question. There are a couple of ways in which neuroscience is really influential and informative. The first is understanding that we all enter into any issue with bias. And that so much of the way that we’re wired, from a neuroscientific standpoint, is responsible for our decision-making, and it’s happening largely outside of our own consciousness.

If you take somebody, an average 40-year-old, who has had 40 years of information dumped into their brain—so, thinking of the brain as a computer, it’s literally sitting in the hard drive. But if I have to make a decision within seconds, my computer does not have time to parse through 40 years of millions of bits of data. What it does is it starts to create patterns. It’s why so many of us, when we see an issue, we immediately think we know the answer. It’s not because we’ve sat and thought about all of the information that we’ve accumulated through our lifetime. Our brain has done that process for us over the years. It says, “You would normally,” because of all this data, “I am assuming,” like an algorithm, “that your response would be X. That’s what I’m going to give you.”

If you’re ever walking down the street and you look at somebody, and everybody says, “Oh, go with your gut instinct because your gut instinct is telling you, is that person a friend or a foe?” You have no data or information other than what your eyes see. What your brain has done is, within milliseconds, has drawn on all of those years of data and said, this person, with that data—we are assuming that they are X, because the data that you’ve accumulated tells you this. But that data is biased.

When we come to solving the big issues of the world, we’re talking about people. And we’re talking about people who all are coming to this with their own biases but often don’t have any recognition that much of that information is tainted or restricted to their own experience, their own worldview, their own backgrounds. We really push people, and that’s why this idea of empathic intelligence is so critically important even in policy change and coming to solutions to the world’s big problems.

The more you understand how much you are restricted and biased and limited in your own worldview, the more you start leaning on other people to add to it. It’s the idea that the brain knows that it needs other people to actually have really solid decision-making at outcomes, which is why empathy is actually the core of critical thinking, and critical thinking is the core of good decision-making. They’ve done so much work looking at incredible leaders and decision-makers throughout history. One of the most common threads is that they are much more empathic themselves.

What they’ve done—and many of them have just been exposed to lots of people and lots of stories—is their brains have so much more data to draw from outside of their own experience. So instead of having this restricted lens to, let’s say, climate change—if you’re looking at climate change through your lens only, and you haven’t spent time understanding the perspectives that other people have on the issue, your lens is about 45 degrees max.

For those who spent lots of time talking to people who have different ideas and who think about it differently, who might even challenge them or disagree with them, it just broadens your lens. It just gives you more information and data to draw from in your decision-making.

The Christy Vines Journey

KLUTSEY: Wonderful. Now, what’s the Christy Vines journey—basically, your background? How did you get into all of this work?

VINES: Totally by accident. I wish it was some strategic plan and I had this career pursuit. I really believe that it started when I was young. Lots of research has shown that some of the most empathic people have been avid readers, especially readers of stories. Whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, biographies or narrative story, it doesn’t matter. The people who have read and consume lots of stories tend to be more empathic, and that’s how I grew up. I grew up as a voracious reader of stories.

What they have found is, a reason why people are more empathic is that they now have all of these perspectives that they draw from, even though these could be totally false, made-up stories. But it just helps you make decisions better. I would say that it really started in an early formative way because my mother just pushed books on me, and I will forever be grateful for that.

I think what’s happened is, I recognized when I was doing global conflict work—especially around religious pluralism and freedom, and how limitations on religious freedom influence and impact peace in a country and actually increases conflict in countries where there’s limited religious freedom . . .

Sitting down with leaders and decision-makers and recognizing that while, yes, diplomatic processes are important and peace treaties are important and negotiated agreements are important, the transformation and the long-term impact really happened when I started to see leaders talk about their children and how the future of their country was so important to what their children would inherit. Then recognizing that they had that in common—or talking about their past and an experience that they could both understand and relate to.

To see that start to break down those walls, I was like, there’s something here. I didn’t know what it was at the time. But by the time I got to Ideos it was really clear that whatever it was, was necessary for the future not just of our country but of our world. It was a really good mentor of mine who said to me one day, “Everything you’re talking about, I think you’re talking about empathy.” I went down that rabbit hole and have not emerged since. For me, my future—in addition to just trying to raise three really empathically intelligent children—is also to try to leave as the legacy a world that is much more empathic than I inherited.

KLUTSEY: Speaking of children, and I guess students, a number of our folks in the audience are professors and teachers. I want you to recommend some stories that help people to be empathic.

VINES: Interestingly enough, people ask me this question all the time, like, “What books would you recommend?” I’m like, “Just read.”

KLUTSEY: [laughs]

VINES: It doesn’t even matter. Whatever genre you enjoy, just start reading stories. But I will tell you one I always say, and people go, “Isn’t that for children?” Like, “No.” To me, it’s a book that should be on everybody’s reading list, and it’s “Watership Down.” It was a story I read as a child, it’s a story I picked back up again as a teenager, it’s a story I read again in college and it’s a story I’ve read to my children. It’s about rabbits, [chuckles] for those that don’t know. It really is an allegory. It’s really us, and it’s a really incredible way of seeing us as humans through the lens of an animal—which, again, there’s so much neuroscience.

I hate to sound like I’m geeking out. I’m not a neuroscientist, which is crazy as well. You’re reading about human beings in such a nonthreatening way because you think you’re reading about rabbits. So your brain is processing information without having the defenses up that we normally would read if we were reading a story about actual human beings. There’s a profound and impactful way that reading “Watership Down” tells you about the story of yourself and other humans without you filtering it in the same way, defensively, that you would if you’re reading another story about other human beings.

Ultimately, I just say read. I can also give, certainly, one really important book that I think has profoundly changed my life as an adult and really informed this work, which is called “Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together.” It’s a very dense book, especially for professors. It’s a great book to draw from. It’s much than an academic tome as it is just a practical way of doing dialogue and engaging it in your everyday life by William Isaacs, who is the founder of Dialogos.

Building Bridges

KLUTSEY: I see. Wonderful. What’s the most difficult aspect of bridge building?

VINES: [laughs] People. It’s easy. That was a softball. People, because bridge building is about connecting people, building back the bridges that have been broken down between human beings. Sometimes that comes with hurt and pain and an emotion and loss, and so recognizing that, doing the bridge-building work, it’s literally not like going out and laying bricks down. That it is—as David Brooks has so well said with his organization, Weave—it’s reknitting and weaving back broken, disconnected chords, that sometimes you don’t immediately see where the brokenness has actually occurred.

It is a long, hard process. I think, for those of us that are in the bridge-building world, one of probably our greatest regrets is that we will likely not live to see the true impact of our work. It’s been generations that this has been a continual process of just small tears, and weaving it back together will likely take an equal amount of time.

KLUTSEY: Well, we’re almost at the end here. I was wondering whether you had a call to action. What is the one big takeaway that you hope listeners leave this or readers leave this conversation still thinking about? Maybe even acting upon?

VINES: It would be easy and probably simplistic to say, “Go out and have a dialogue.” That’s hard, and I recognize it’s hard for a lot of people. I encourage people to just go ask somebody that is different from you in terms of maybe their political background or their religious background or even the way in which they might see an issue. Instead of going and asking them about the issue, go ask them to tell you their story, and then tell their story back to somebody else in the first person. Do a story exchange.

KLUTSEY: Story exchange. Wonderful. Now, finally, there’s a question I ask pretty much every guest. Are you optimistic about the future?

[laughter]

VINES: If I wouldn’t be, I would be doing something totally different. I’m optimistic. I say this actually at the end of the film which we produced last July. Our director actually interviewed me at the end and said, “What gives you hope?” In the same way that I say the hardest thing about this job is people, it’s people that give me hope and keep me optimistic. I think, ultimately, everybody wants to leave a better world for their children than they inherited.

I think the majority of people are just working really hard out there to do that. I think with the right skills, the right tools and enough of a shift—a pendulum shift happening in culture, where we just don’t get rewarded for winning the debate anymore—that in future generations, we’ll see a much more empathic United States, and hopefully a much more empathic world.

KLUTSEY: Well, Christy, thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it. This has been an enriching conversation.

VINES: Thanks for having me.



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