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Greater Empathy and Understanding- A 12 Month Plan

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As we usher in 2017, our world is filled with fear and uncertainty, carried over from a year of intense strife, tensions and divisions. To say 2016 was tumultuous is an understatement.

Like many others in our country, I'm seeking ways to understand different perspectives and in my own small way, to help build understanding and healing. While I live in a very culturally diverse city, I know I can do more to widen my own perspective, to create empathy and to be a bridge across divides.

What is empathy and why is it important? Stated simply, empathy is defined as the ability to sense others' emotions and feelings, along with the ability to think of how someone else may be feeling. Empathy helps us to understand and build connection with others. The Greater Good Science Center at University of California-Berkeley further defines two types of empathy:

"Affective empathy" refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others' emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another's fear or anxiety. "Cognitive empathy," sometimes called "perspective taking," refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples' emotions.

You might ask "How can I feel empathy for both those who are suffering and those who are causing the suffering, AND still hold to my moral compass?" Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center attempts this same question. In this article, sociologist Arlie Russell Hoschild says building empathy does not get in the way of holding on to your moral compass. As Hoschild states, it enables you to process and do your thinking at a deeper level, with more understanding.

I myself am starting a 12 month project to deepen my awareness and broaden my perspectives. I hope to gain additional nuances to both my cognitive and affective empathy and to expand my viewpoints and knowledge of those who are different from me. While not a panacea, I'm sharing my personal 12 month challenge to learn from my fellow humans:

1. Read a book written from a different perspective, or that challenges the building of perspective. A few recommendations: "Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance , "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates , "Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People" by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. If you're feeling ambitious, read a good fiction book as well. Research shows that reading works of fiction increases empathy and understanding.

2. As Van Jones stated on CNN's "The Messy Truth", "Part of the problem in America is we talk ABOUT people, we don't talk TO them." To that end, meet up with someone who has a much different upbringing and have coffee or lunch with them. Ask them about their experiences - their background, how they grew up, what their beliefs are, what they fear, what they are the most proud of. Develop deep curiosity and listening. Really listen to another's perspective. Listening and understanding may not beget agreement- you can truly hear someone, understand what they are saying, and still disagree. This is what makes our country great - we can disagree, yet agree that respectful disagreements are good and healthy.

3. Volunteer at an organization that you've had no exposure to before. A great way to gain empathy, understanding, and a broadened perspective is to work side by side with others.

4. Donate - even a small amount- to a nonprofit or faith-based organization you have not donated to before. Understand what they stand for, what their organization does, and how they spend their funds. (Click here for tips to find reputable organizations.)

5. Visit somewhere new - a new city, county, state, or country, doesn't have to be far. Understand how people there live. What are their greatest challenges? What do they love the most about where they live? What have they seen change the most here in the last 10 years?

6. Talk to strangers. Ask them what their background is, what brings them joy, what their fears are, what their journey has been. Ask if they are from this area, and strike up a conversation. (As a strong preference for extroversion, I can guarantee you will be surprised as what you might learn from unexpected places).

7. Attend a religious service of another faith. If that's not your thing, ask someone about his/her faith or religion. What are some commonalities? What are some differences?

8. Practice a version of Upworthy's 31 day empathy challenge

9. Attend a lecture or seminar given by someone completely different from you, or on a social topic to which you have had no previous exposure. If you are in a location that doesn't have these type of events, there are a ton of great options on YouTube or TED talks.

10. Watch a documentary or film highlighting another culture, subculture, religion, etc. Watch with deep curiosity. Put yourself in their shoes. Consider your reaction, what you would do, what surprised you, what you didn't know before you watched, etc.

11. Share your insights- with a friend, with family, with a group- of what you've learned or how your perspective has changed over the last 10 months.

12. Reflect and take action. What did you learn this year? What were you surprised about? What was confirmed for you? What did you find challenging? What is next?

Will this 12 month plan be a panacea? Will it erase any unconscious bias I have? Sadly, no. These are complex and long rooted issues with many tentacles. But I have an intense belief - maybe it's a hope- that we are all inextricably connected to each other in common humanity. My hope in this plan is to gain better understanding and perspective and through action, even at the smallest level, to help build a ripple effect of compassion. A journey begins with a single step - or 12.

(Let me know what other actions you are taking for your own year of building empathy and understanding. Tweet me at @RachelVerlik)