TED Conversations

Sam Richards


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How does the presenter impact the reaction to a talk? So how might people's reactions to my talk be different if I was retired military?

I'll be live between 1:00 - 3:00 pm EST. After that I'll jump on each do to react to some of the posts and threads.

ADMIN EDIT: Sam requested we keep this conversation open after the end of his live chat. He will be checking in on this thread over the next couple of weeks to respond and comment.


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    Apr 28 2011: Hey, I want to kick out a new question. Most people who have reacted negatively to this talk have said one of two things: 1. I'm a nutcase anti-American liberal academic (or some version of that :-) or, 2. This is elementary thinking -- that the talk is meaningless because nobody should find themselves incapable of empathizing with Iraqis. Any thoughts on the second critique?
    • Apr 28 2011: In answer to #2, Empathy (like other "soft skills" such as listening) seems like something we all do naturally and easily. My experience doing conflict resolution work for the past 15-20 years is that these are profoundly difficult things to do (and to even know how to do) in the moments when it's most necessary. And that's exactly why #1 occurred so often in response to your talk.
      • Apr 28 2011: I agree with you Laurie. I think the reason that happens is we all tend to feel safe inside that shell of "righteous anger". When we can jump on board an ideology, even if they don't actually feel that way, it makes us feel part of the crowd. It feels good to have a strong opinion because it makes us feel accepted. We don't want to hear what other people have to say because when we destroy the foundations of those ideologies we've bought into, it can peel back the onion skin a little to far and reveal a little too much about ourselves than we're comfortable with. It can be scary to see what you're really like. We like to see themselves how we think we are.
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          Apr 28 2011: I fully agree with you here. And peeling back the onion is what needs to happen...again and again.
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          Apr 30 2011: I think that people have a natural desire to hold to something as true, and as you say Ian, when we have these truth views/ideologies as a way of connecting to a group, we feel more convinced of them.
          It is probably up for debate whether or not is is possible to have the kind of fundamentalist truth view / ideology that is actually consistent with a kind of ultimate truth. Regardless of the status of the answer to this question, I hold that even if people do have the 'right' ideology, if they are closed to ideas that do not support it, their rightness is pale at best. You loose the depth that truth has to offer when you make it black and white.
      • Apr 28 2011: Not so naturally and easily for everyone... I think that letting nature and observation handle soft skills teaching is a bad plan for the species. It's part of who we are and how we interact with each other, and that's worth some explicit mention. And I mean early; let's nursery rhyme that business, let's make it so catchy and sticky that EVERYBODY knows. I'm not neurotypical; I got a late start on a lot of soft skills, especially facial expressions and body language (turns out when you can't see faces, you don't learn to read them very well!)... I got specific education about empathy and relational dynamics in religious education, though, and I really do think that has helped me be a better human being, for certain definitions of better. I can relate to this thought of 'how can you not see their pain?!' but at the same time, I do know that not everyone has heard what I have heard or knows what I know, and so, yeah, maybe this is new for them. I think the people saying that it's meaningless might have missed the point, which is that our brothers are like us, but not Just Like Us, but that could just have easily been us in their position. do unto whowhatnow? oh, you know...
        • May 1 2011: 7 hours ago: Seems to me thatin the same possition with te same erperiences poeple would act diffrently. My brother not ct like me and we sahred a room for many years, and same exeriences.. He is still trgilios whele I hasve dropped mine completely.

          I thnk if they would drop religion as I have dropped mine, the world would be a safe place. So I don't give sny credit from being born into something.

          Let's start a movement. Drop God Week! It should be a yearly event like internation smoke out day!!!

          Yu csn have her back at the ned of the moth!!!!

          Hey I tnk this could ctch on!!!
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          May 3 2011: Mr. Pistole. The drop god week idea? Count me in!!!
    • Apr 28 2011: I'd like to think of myself as an empathetic person. I still was moved by your talk, took meaning from it, and it lingered on my mind for quite a while. Even if it is elementary thinking I would argue that everyone, no matter how empathetic they are, could use a refresher and reminder now and then. It's too easy to get wrapped up in your own little world and forget about the rest.
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        Apr 28 2011: Well, I have to say that every time I deliver this talk I am struck myself by how simple it is to empathize and yet how quickly I forget that I need to do it. Sociology is one of those fields that people call "the study of the obvious" and yet it's only obvious after the professor/sociologists makes the statement.
        • Apr 29 2011: It IS obvious, it's just not INTUITIVE. By which I mean, it's not part of a knee-jerk reaction to any situation; it's not a function of our Id. So we have to get into the mental habit of doing it (super-ego), we have to practice it probably for a long time (years) before it might start coming automatically.

          I most often find myself practicing my empathy after the fact, once I'm past a situation and trying to make more sense of it, which is at least useful for calming myself down and feeling less angry or upset; however, sometimes it also makes me feel upset and frustrated for a different reason: because I know that the other person is certainly not giving me the same courtesy, and furthermore I lose credibility with both "sides" because (as others have discussed above) I'm not willing to completely dismiss nor espouse either one.

          Practicing empathy, especially in emotional situations (whether it's a religious war or someone cutting you off in traffic), is such a difficult skill to incorporate into your everyday life that we really need to start teaching it in preschool and every grade on up, not start in college sociology classes. Little kids are great at mental experiments: it's called "Story Time" and "Role Playing." This is why we teach History and Social Studies, so I think it would be amazingly effective if we kept the same fact-based curriculum (needed to pass standardized tests), but instead of teaching it with memorization of facts, teach it using thought experiments and role-playing! Then we might learn the lessons of history instead of just the facts of history, and we might all be a lot better at practicing empathy every day.
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          Apr 30 2011: Hi Meredith,
          You're on to something....practice. We don't ever really know what the other person is doing/thinking/feeling. How about assuming they are doing the same thing we are doing...practicing?
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      Apr 28 2011: AS to the second way of thinking- they have missed a step. You have to choose to look, to feel and to know before you can empathize. Closing your eyes, ears, hearts or hiding behind not knowing doesn't count.
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      Apr 28 2011: Sorry, I'm new to this and put my answer in the wrong place:

      I wish it were elementary thinking. It should be. But it isn't.
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        Apr 28 2011: Yes. Given the number of wars and the immense amount of interpersonal conflict in our lives, it certainly doesn't seem elementary. I'm working on this issue all day long, day after day -- every time I have any sort of a negative thought or feeling about someone.
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      Apr 28 2011: Professor Richards.. perhaps both of these negative perceptions stem from some sort of internal or group "posturing" - in the first, to deliberately position oneself into the "us" or the "USa" group, with the second possibly being more of an internal posture, assuring themselves that their own personal level of empathy is like that third bowl of porridge.. "just right"? In my time, I've found the hardest concept to accept, is that there is far more to an issue than I'd considered, that I might possibly be wrong in my understanding, or wanting in my thinking processes.
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        Apr 28 2011: Agreed. I'm totally with you. And on chat and comment sites there does seem to be a lot of posturing. When it comes from my students--that is, when someone says, "everybody knows this"-- I sometimes ask if anybody would like to stand in front of the class say what it is that I am saying. Playfully, of course, because I'm trying to get them to see that the fish is the last species to understand water.
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      Apr 28 2011: I like to think of it as being like walking. Yes, putting one foot in front of another is quite elementary, but it's also quite clear that it takes an enormous amount of training to run a marathon. And, yes, we all have the ability to empathize, but it takes (for me at least) enormous effort, and practice, to empathize with people I strongly disagree with.

      So, while it may be correct that we can all easily understand the proposition: "Our enemies have reasons for what they do", it takes effort and training to get to a place of real understanding.
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        Apr 28 2011: This is a big part of military training, by the way. You better know your adversary -- all parts of him or her. And it's why high level officers have great respect for their counterparts. Ever read the words that Grant said about Lee? It's sobering.
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        Apr 28 2011: I like how you write "empathizing when it matters" here. Yes, like in our day-to-day lives -- with our friends and spouses and children and parents. How is it so easy to feel empathy toward someone across the world from me and yet I have a difficult time feeling it with my neighbor?
    • Apr 28 2011: The problem is in the statement itself - "should" and "find". Unfortunately, people DO find themselves in this position of being unable to empathize - that is precisely why your talk is impactful to a variety of audiences. And as for "find" - that is how empathy happened for me. I believe it was a matter of birth order and family size for me - I had six siblings. But I don't ever remember being taught how to empathize, it is something I always remember feeling. But I don't think that is the case for everyone. And sadly, we are not taught empathy, or much else as regards emotional intelligence. The critique, it seems to me, lacks empathy inherently. We've not all been socialized or genetically granted the experience of empathy, and that does matter when we get to the point where we are speaking of how others "should" be. The statement reveals flaws: if the person writing it thinks all others 'should' find themselves in a position capable of empathizing with Iraqis, say, then ought that person also think all others 'should' find themselves in a position capable of empathizing with others that don't know how to empathize, say? I wouldn't give the argument too much undue attention, but an empathic, but critical reply, might matter in some way. That's a judgment call, I guess.
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      Apr 28 2011: I agree with Suzie Wagner. If we're getting technical with the wording, and if you're American, you shouldn't empathize with Iraqis according to society and the media at large. At the same time, I think you NATURALLY should be able to empathize with them because the only thing separating you from them is a description/label. We're all beings from a different country.

      Replace Iraqis with anyone and you'll find plenty of people who don't WANT to empathize, but they absolutely can and should. The thought of empathizing seems elementary, but I think it takes more courage and honesty than most are willing to give. The media and more tell us in so many ways that we shouldn't empathize anyway. Not unless they're "one of us".
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      Apr 28 2011: We can ALWAYS use more reminders of empathy...all of us. When someone says something is meaningless or we "should" and "shouldn't", they are really saying...let's just dismiss this issue because WE don't want to deal with it.
    • Apr 28 2011: Of course we are capable of empathizing with the Iraqis, but that does not necessarily mean every person wants to and actually does empathize! If this talk was pointless then why was there such clear indifference and alienation between American and Iraqi citizens when we entered the war? The principles behind the talk may be relatively elementary, but that certainly does not make it any less important.
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      Apr 29 2011: Sam: I guess, as a scientist, you had projected 2 instances (there were probably many, but picking 2) ... You projected the Chinese and coal issue which sounded more anti-Chinese for me ... Later on, you went about projecting the American strategies as being absurd ... I feel your examples with respect to these two harped on pro- and anti-American in a way ... In a way, this is balance ...

      Second, if you stood up and pointed out what you consider to be gross ignorance and lack of empathy from a military and christian point of view, I feel you are all the more entitled as an American to do it ... Assuming you are an American ... Second, let's face it ... The US has invariably put its feet in other politics for a long time, but why would they feel shy if they are criticized ? Their entry into the Indo-Pak issue was a catalyst to globalizing this issue out of a molehill ... I am sharing this as a civilian ... Why would a country be interested in Indo-Pak issues unless it has selfish interests ? You know, its time, that people start appreciating criticism as an adult ... I was very young when this happened but I never saw the Indian press making a deal until the US came in the scene. Now who wants to take responsibility?

      Finally, I feel, if you like to empathize with an Iraqi, I feel you are right ... If the US infiltrates my country (India) and bombs my country, what would I do ... pick dead flowers and watch people falling dead like nine pins ... ofcourse, this develops hatred and animosity in me to retaliate in big and small ways ... C'mon, its time that their country is handed over to them and let them deal with their 'internal' issues themselves ... If this makes me anti-America, then that's really parochial in my opinion ...

      Infact one of the forgiveness program I had participated back in India, talks on how we must not only take stands to how much hurt we received but also how much we GAVE others ... Doesn't that make us a better person ... Thanks Sam.
    • Apr 29 2011: I've been wondering about your second point a while. I watched Kathry Schultz's talk on wrongness and thought that her talk we be good for a Perspectives 101 course, but I meant this in a positive way. I've been looking for basic skills we all could be working on and her talk, much the same as yours, fits the bill. Yet someone criticized her talk as being for "novices". Well, yeah. Where else do you start?

      When something is taught, someone has to point out that they've already thought of it, that it's too obvious or easy, that someone else does it better, that the teacher has some issue, etc. I've wondered if it's a form of validation seeking and/or defensive posturing, but I don't have the models to analyze it. It's an irritating phenomenon, but perhaps empathy can help me puzzle it out.
    • May 1 2011: To be completely honest Sam, I thought your talk was poorly structured. You are not a nutcase anti-American liberal. You are just emphatic about your passions. For me, the concepts you brought up have no infringement on my identity as it is not bound by nationalism or any other pointless constructs. If you would like more precise criticism on how to improve your talk so that your ideas can market a larger audience then please PM me.
    • May 1 2011: Mr. Richards,
      When I viewed your talk I began thinking of another talk I view on ted.


      Even if the perspective you presents is "elementary thinking" couldn't this be the answer to reach the majority of the public. When we have so many choices and so much information coming at us from all forms of media; how could anyone understand much less comprehend all the information from one topic. Then as academia's we have to break down and analyize everthing else so that it is even more confusing for the general public that holds an eight grade education, according to statistics. We can analyze all we want but if we cannot relay that message to the population then we condemn ourselves to the same mistakes of the past wouldn't we?

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