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Arts & Culture

Author Sylvia Baffour Gives Lessons On Empathy

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Courtesy Sylvia Baffour

After a contentious election year that saw people of different economic, racial and political persuasions pitted against each other here in North Carolina and nationwide, many people are now calling for healing and for people to show empathy toward each other. Empathy is something Charlotte Mayor Vy Lyles called for the business community to have for protesters this summer and what former First Lady Michelle Obama talked about during the Democratic National Convention.

Michelle Obama: Empathy, that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. The ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. The recognition that someone’s else’s experience has value too…It’s what we teach our children. But right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another. They see people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe. They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the color of their skin. And they see what happens when that lack of empathy is ginned up into outright disdain.

Gwendolyn Glenn Earlier this year, Washington, D.C.-based author and emotional intelligence expert Sylvia Baffour was scheduled to speak about empathy at a health conference at UNC-Chapel Hill but it was canceled due to the pandemic. It was about the time her book on the subject was released—“I Dare You To Care.” I caught up with her in her native home of Ghana, in between speaking engagements on the subject to get her take on how empathy is or should play out during these trying times.

Sylvia Baffour: Empathy is easier said than done, right, and I think there's been a lot of lip service given to empathy. We have to make more of an effort. And I always say that empathy doesn't demand that we step into the shoes of others perfectly. It just requires that we we try to step into them, connecting with others who are different from us, you know.

Glenn: One thing that I wanted to talk about. So you have all this division after the election and even before the election. What role do you think empathy can play, is playing, in all of this?

Baffour: The biggest role empathy can play is, it is to me our only chance to reconnect. You know, as you mentioned, we are more divided than ever before globally really. This is so much opposition. Everyone is staying in their own little cubbyhole of beliefs, right. And so I think that empathy becomes the most powerful tool we can use to help unite people. And I think one of the ways we can do that, to help just ease the political climate, is for all of us to just stop and see what is her story? What is his story? I don't think we're asking enough of that. I think as human beings, we're always making judgments and we have to because we have to make decisions in life. But I think we've got to get more curious about our judgments and not attached to them. And that's where empathy plays a role.

Glenn: How realistic is that? Because when you have the Make America Great people, you have the Black Lives Matter folks, you have groups that are pushing for affordable housing and various issues, and then you have those who are not for giving that helping hand to people. How can empathy actually realistically play out?

Baffour: It's going to take work and it is the responsibility of each and every one as human beings to stop for a moment and let down the ego because I truly believe that ego and empathy cannot exist in the same space. 2020 has brought us to our knees and opened our eyes to the realization that we must do something different. And so it's imperative that we all lower the level of our egos to just connect with what it feels like when we understood and valued and seen by others and then extend that same courtesy to other people.

Glenn: Do you think that a lot of people out there are saying, well, I am practicing empathy, but it's a thing of selective empathy, feeling that with those who think like you?

Baffour: I think you're absolutely right. And that's not even empathy Gwen, if you if we really peel back the layers, that's not empathy. That's comfortable. For me to empathize with people who are kind of flowing in the same direction. What work have you done? You know, you've not crossed any barrier. You have both feet in your own shoes. In a sense, empathy is not something that we practice when we're in the company of people who agree with us. And empathy isn't about being nice. It's about making people feel seen and heard. That's it. Even as we disagree.

Glenn: And as President-elect Biden, Joe Biden, is putting together a cabinet. And do you think that empathy is playing a role in his administration or do you think it should?

Baffour: Just from what I'm seeing, I think empathy is playing a role. I think it's part of the reason that he may have won the election is because a significant number of people were craving to get back to a deeper level of humanity. And I think that Joe Biden embodies that.

Glenn: And I'm sure you've been thinking about this a lot. Again, you've written about this and you speak about this all over the place, the coronavirus. And do you see empathy playing out in terms of how we are dealing with each other during this pandemic?

Baffour: Yeah, and I think, sadly, it's I think it's an absence of empathy that is playing out a bit more than the reverse. I think the idea that we would politicize wearing a mask to protect ourselves, our neighbors, the elderly, the fact that it's become a point of contention, I think shows that we are not leading with empathy. We're not. What does it cost us to put on a mask and protect others or keep our distance? Right. So I think the coronavirus, it has revealed and uncovered places where we all need to grow our empathy in leaps and bounds because it's missing in a lot of realms of society.

Glenn: And the title of your book is "I Dare You to Care." What message would you like not just politicians, but people to get in terms of empathy?

Baffour: One of the things I do in my book is I lead each chapter with a quote that is profound for me. And I would say that what I'd love people to take away from the book "I Dare You to Care" is really the quote that I mentioned from Jim Carrey, the famous comedian, where he said that the effect you have on others is the most valuable currency. That is, we have to care about the impact we have on those around us because it's unsustainable for us to continue as a human race if we aren't giving a hoot about the impact we have on others. And the energy we're bringing to people.

Glenn: And on a personal level, I know that Dr. Maya Angelou was your mentor. And did she affect your thoughts on empathy and emotional intelligence and how you have come to think about it?

Baffour: And she totally did. You know, I was privileged to be around her a little bit. And I would watch the way she treated the person opening up the doors in the elevator, to the celebrities she had around the Thanksgiving table. And the thing she just she was so big on treating everyone equally. And I think that the quote that she's most remembered by that "people will forget what you did, people will forget what you said, people will never forget how you made them feel" is something that she lived out. And I watched it around her every time I was in her presence. And it's a reminder to me every day to think about the way I make others feel is what ultimately matters.

Sylvia Baffour, emotional intelligence, empathy expert and speaker and author of “I Dare You To Care.”