Lee Carter: The biggest crisis facing America is incredibly important, but you seldom hear it discussed

Suffolk University and USA Today recently released a poll showing that while 9 in 10 Fox News viewers support President Trump, only 1 in 10 NPR listeners support him. America is a divided country indeed.

We all intuitively know how divided we are. But it’s even worse than that. The poll asked voters: “If your candidate for President were to lose, how confident would you be that the 2020 presidential election had been conducted in a ‘fair-and-square’ way?”

Some 60 percent of respondents said they would not be confident, instead questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 election if their candidate doesn’t win. That is staggering.


Think about what that means. We are living in an age when most of us can’t even imagine that a majority of voters might support someone we don’t.

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And so I pose a question: Is the biggest threat to our democracy a foreign government? Or is it something much closer to home?

I believe the real crisis we are facing as a country is a crisis of empathy.

Without empathy we will continue to try to convince others they are wrong by shouting louder from our soapboxes. We will continue to traffic in hate and disgust.

Let me be clear about what I mean by empathy and why it’s so important. I define it as the ability to understand someone’s behaviors, beliefs and emotions.

And make no mistake about it; having empathy does not mean you have to agree with the behavior, beliefs and emotions of others. It simply means you must be willing to suspend your own judgment long enough to be able to see the world from their perspective.

The reason empathy is so important is that without it, nothing will change. There will be no coming together. There will be no unity. There will be no persuasion, meaning we won’t change anyone’s mind about anything.

Without empathy we will continue to try to convince others they are wrong by shouting louder from our soapboxes. We will continue to traffic in hate and disgust.

On the other hand, if we operate with empathy we will speak smarter across party lines and more folks will reach out to engage with and understand the other side. The question is how.

In my book “Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter,” I teach a practice called active empathy. It is a three-step process and here is what it covers.


What emotions will make it possible or impossible for me to have a meaningful conversation and how can I address those emotions?

So, for example, imagine you support President Trump and the person you are trying to talk to is a never-Trumper who has suggested that anyone who supports the president is a racist.

At first glance, you might think that person is being judgmental and condescending. But what if you dug just a bit deeper?

You would find that the person was truly afraid of what is happening in this country. That he or she despises racism, hates division, and is terrified that we are returning to a time in our history when these things were more prevalent.

The funny thing is that you likely feel the same way. And you can empathize with the other person’s feelings. Once you understand this, you would likely make a language shift – from talking about racists to talking about racism. Something you can both agree on.


How can I better understand the values that are most important so that I can communicate about what matters to me in language that resonates with others?

There are primary values that drive a lot of our belief systems – especially our political beliefs.

Consider gun control as an example. Nine out of 10 Americans believe we need to do something to address gun violence in our country. However, if you are an advocate for gun control speaking to a Second Amendment supporter who wants no change at all, I would urge you to look at the values of the other person.

As someone who wants stronger gun control your primary value is harm versus care. You would likely say that people should not have to fear for their lives when they go to school, the store, or the movies.

People who want things to stay as they are might agree with you. But they also believe that liberty is a primary value. They believe that they – not the government – will make the best decisions and that they shouldn’t have their freedoms curtailed because of a few very bad actors.

Once you understand this, you could engage in a conversation about how we can keep our freedoms and keep the guns out of the hands of the wrong people, rather than having a heated argument about how the Second Amendment advocate could care so little about people.


How can I better understand others by looking at what they actually do in addition to what I think they do or what they say they do?

In this example, I want you to think about Election Day and voter turnout. Many folks agree that the 2020 presidential election will be the most important election of their lives. Polling tells us so. The Democratic presidential hopefuls tell us so. And President Trump has told us so.

So why then are more folks not tuning in to the Democratic debates? Why are 2 in 3 Americans not able to engage politically? Why is voter turnout just at 55 percent in presidential elections?  Is it because people don’t care?


I think most people care deeply. It’s just that they are busy. And politics is stressful and upsetting to most. So given the choice, how are most folks going to spend their time?

And so instead of taking for granted that everyone will go out and vote in the most important election of their lives, you can make sure to address how to help people find the time to engage.


While each component of active empathy isn’t necessarily new, when people think of empathy they usually focus on only one of the three.

What is important here is to go through all three as a unit. You will notice some overlap among the three types. That’s intentional. How you feel, what drives you, and how you behave are all interrelated.

But if you look at these components one by one in a disciplined manner, you will emerge with a full view of the other side. Only then will you be able to develop a message and a plan on how to begin to change hearts and minds.


In these times what we need isn’t more polarization. What we need is persuasion. Does that seem counterintuitive? It shouldn’t.

I can’t underscore this point enough: true persuasion is an act of empathy. It takes total commitment and focus. It takes discipline and energy. But if you do it right, it will be worth it, because once you really understand the other person, you will be able to engage and move the needle.