In the vernacular of the day, I feel you, Elvis. Indeed, there is nothing funny about “peace, love and understanding.” Peace is a “state” that enlightened people seek—not success, or wealth, or even happiness. We have to have love to be whole. And real understanding is the key to the first two. Empathy (understanding on steroids) de-escalates antipathy, plain and simple. And brother, we could use a little less antipathy in the world right now.
When I’m helping leaders craft messages that move others, I often get accused of teaching people to manipulate with words. I always say, “Influence with empathy is manipulation without the side effects.” One understanding of the word “manipulate” is simply to “make something work,” to articulate it in a mechanical sense. When I unfold my glasses and put them on my face, I’m manipulating them. It doesn’t hurt the glasses; it just puts them to work. Then, I can see you better. By this definition, we manipulate (influence with empathy) each other all the time.
We give people reasons to love us. We make choices (conscious or unconscious) that make us as attractive as possible. And, if we have any insight at all, we make choices that are based on the needs of the “other” person. When I say, “You look great! Have you been working out?” you had better be someone who cares about your appearance and values exercise or else it won’t open a door between us. But, when we simply barrage each other with “messages” based on fear and polarizing rhetoric, then we manipulate without empathy. And, that leads to antipathy—not influence—and certainly not connection.
We see a lot of that type of messaging these days. In fact, it is the stock and trade of political consultants in what has become the most starkly divided political landscape since the days of Lincoln. Messages based on fear and anger have created an environment ripe for another civil war. Literally. In my life time, I have seen the rhetoric between the two parties move from philosophical disagreement and patronizing “tongue-clucking” to violent threats and vicious slurs. The “message” has become “the issue,” and that is a dangerous thing.
During the run-up to the health care vote, most Americans had no idea what constituted the bill. We had no idea what we were fighting about. But we fought. We knew whether we were for it or against it even though we didn’t know what the bill said. We were either with the Hatfield’s or McCoy’s, Carolina or Duke, the Yankees or the Dodgers, even though we had no idea why we hated each other. And, we have begun to hate each other—it’s just that we don’t know why. If we hate each other badly enough, long enough, it won’t matter why, and somebody is going to end up getting hurt.
It is up to us. We can demand to understand what we are fighting about. We can demand that the same people who are manufacturing vitriol spend time and space exploring issues, not just shouting “messages.” We can demand that complex ideas be explained simply and evenly. We can demand that our elected leaders play fair. We can demand that they get along, and “de-escalate the antipathy” that exists in Washington. We can demand that they get to know one another and that they work together. We can demand a little peace, love, and understanding.