Intercultural empathy: Myth, competency, or possibility for alliance building? Part 2

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By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, October 23, 2001 - 10:19 am: Edit Post

Implications for Practice

There are a number of ways in which trainers and teachers of intercultural communication can encourage relational empathy and alliance building across social groups. I will suggest a few based on my own experiences as a teacher and learner.

First, instructors should address oppression and social power dynamics at individual, group, and societal levels. Learners need to be shown that acknowledgment of oppres\sion is a prerequisite for genuine intergroup relationships. That is not to say, however, that individual differences and similarities should be ignored, or that social groups are doomed to misunderstand each other. Instead, mindfulness of oppression is a necessary first step to transcending it. During my training to become a Peace Corps volunteer, for instance, I was taught about neocolonialism to assure that I am cautious about perpetuating it.

In my own teaching of the 200-level Intercultural Communication class, I use a variety of activities to encourage students to develop awareness of their social group memberships, while at the same time acknowledging their individual situations and personalities. I ask them to reflect on the privileges and disadvantages of groups to which they belong, and encourage them to find pride in their identities while at the same time taking responsibility for their own roles in oppression.

Secondly, I have students participate in dialogue groups that encourage implicature and offer practice in bridging differences through communication. Both of the universities in which I have done graduate work have had organized programs for such dialogue groups, with the aim of increased mutual understanding, though not necessarily agreement or consensus. In general, these are groups in which equal numbers of students--men and women, for example-led by a facilitator of each group, come together to explore their identities and relationships in society. The groups may be organized around gender, race, religion, economic class, sexual orientation, (dis)abilities, or other identities; I personally co-facilitated a recent group for international students and US American students.

Ideally each student may choose from among several. The "curriculum" for such groups may be highly structured or relatively loose; the key is that an environment be created whereby all students feel safe exploring their own attitudes and opening to each other.

I also give learners activities where they can practice what Barnlund and Nomura refer to as decentering and convergence. Cross- cultural simulations such as Bafa-- Bafa are invaluable tools for sensitizing learners to their preexisting, often entrenched, worldviews. A significant advantage of such activities is that they operate at affective and behavioral, as well as cognitive levels.

Perhaps the most important implication of empathy is that if each of us can think of ways in which we have been both privileged and marginalized, then we might also be able to see others' liberation from oppression as our own struggle. This is why I have students explore both their dominant and subordinate group memberships. I make a point to reinforce this in other ways, as well. For one thing, I expose students to a wide variety of guest lecturers who can represent experiences with different kinds of privilege and oppression. This past semester, for example, I invited a Japanese female student to discuss cultural adaptation, and a White, male, visually impaired corporate HR manager to discuss the business rationale for diversity in the workplace.

More important, of course, is my awareness of my own identity. Teachers and trainers must be genuine, that is, they should communicate through their own identities, acknowledging both their social privileges and the pain (and pride) of oppressed group membership.

My last few recommendations are implications of adult learning theory: useful for any educational setting, but particularly important for education involving such personal and political issues as cultural diversity. First (as described above), it is important to provide opportunities for experiential learning. Reward attitudinal development, and not just memorization of facts and definitions. Second, allow emotions to be expressed in the classroom, and create a safe environment for them. Try to establish a space, also, for students to challenge, question, and make mistakes. Encourage students to teach each other.

Finally, be willing to learn from students, and demonstrate this willingness by breaking down hierarchical classroom dynamics to the extent possible. I invite students to address me by my first name, for example, while recognizing that for many non-American students this may not be comfortable.

Treating empathy simply as a skill or competency is unrealistic. Relational empathy, though, cultivated in a variety of social contexts, can enhance both intercultural understanding and commitment to social justice on the individual level. Additionally, it is a foundation on which intergroup relationships and alliances may be built. By implementing appropriate educational strategies, we can nurture relational empathy and implicature among our students, thereby encouraging the alliances necessary to combat oppression of all kinds and at all levels.


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Sara DeTurk

Arizona State University

Copyright National Communication Association Oct 2001

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