Dr. Jamil Zaki: A Powerful Message for Challenging Times

Choosing one’s preferred hypothetical superpower is a fun parlor game, but Dr. Jamil Zaki has an answer that actually lies within anyone’s grasp. The renowned Stanford psychology professor, who addressed the entire student body on October 21 as part of The Hall Family Speaker Series, maintains that empathy is a superpower—one that’s particularly apt for our divisive times.
Zaki’s virtual visit, which was organized by the Center for Community and Civic Engagement at Rivers, was viewed by students in their advisory groups. Zaki began by sharing a classic exercise in which participants are asked to connect a grid of nine dots using only four lines. The solution requires outside-of-the-box thinking, and so, too, does the deployment of true empathy. Human beings tend to categorize, to draw lines, to resort to an us-and-them mentality, says Zaki. “That’s not inherently bad,” he said, “but it can turn bad”—as when it prevents us from seeing those who are different from us, or whose ideas differ from ours, as fully human. 

That dehumanizing of the other makes it difficult, if not impossible, to connect with those with whom we disagree. The solution, said Zaki, is empathy—learning to understand where people are coming from, how and why they hold their particular viewpoints, and what areas of common ground might be found.

It’s a tough balancing act, he conceded. “Empathizing with someone is not the same as agreeing with them,” he said. “It isn’t giving up your ideals; it’s just acknowledging and respecting that there is a person on the other side of the argument.” At a moment when Americans are strongly divided, heading into an election that pits warring ideologies against each other, that empathy may be at once more difficult and more necessary than ever. 

Zaki spent a few minutes describing his research and exercises with his Stanford students designed to increase empathy. In one such exercise, students are asked to have a meaningful conversation with someone with whom they disagree. Students are often anxious at the prospect of having to put “disagreeing better” into practice, but, said Zaki, “They are always surprised afterwards at how fulfilling it is.”

He also spoke about how his parents’ contentious relationship and eventual divorce set the stage for developing empathy in his own life. “They seemed to hate each other but truly equally believed that what they thought was true… I learned to tune myself to my parents’ different frequencies. It was the most important skill I ever learned, and one of the most important lessons I ever learned.”

 After Zaki’s initial remarks, students spent some time in their advisory groups discussing two questions: “Can you think of someone you know whose outlook is drastically different from your own and yet authentic and sincerely held?” and “How can you apply empathy the next time you disagree with someone?”

When they reconvened, Dr. Amy Enright, director of the CCCE, asked Zaki a few questions. Citing Zaki’s book, The War for Kindness, Enright asked why the trend seems to be toward greater divisiveness and political polarization, and why empathy seems so challenged at this moment. Essentially, Zaki said, there has been an increase in both political and personal divisiveness over the past 40 years. While it’s hard to put a finger on specific causes, he did point to the fact that we “inhabit different media ecosystems… Nowadays,  the information we receive and opinions we hear are built not to get us on the same page but to keep us online or keep us watching, which often means telling us what we already believe, reconfirming our biases instead of giving us opportunity to see what the other side might be experiencing.”

 Students, too, had the opportunity to ask Zaki questions. After the lively Q&A, Enright thanked Zaki for a presentation that “gave us so much to think about, in an amazing blend of the personal and the political.” Nowadays, most of us need all the help we can get in reaching across ideological divides, and Zaki’s approach reminds us that a robust tool is near at hand: “Most people,” he says, “don’t realize how much of a superpower empathy can be.”