Creating Empathy: Differences, Assumptions and Understanding

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Last week I wrote a column in this weekly series on how the most common sources of exclusion experienced by diverse communities at Chautauqua generally center around two themes: highlighting differences and making assumptions. Many of you stopped me on the grounds to share how helpful that column was, how it made you think, and the ways in which it provided concrete examples of how things might go awry. Others commented that they were working on more proactive, inclusive approaches to starting a conversation that avoided these missteps. The feedback was overwhelmingly helpful and positive, and I am grateful for your willingness to receive it with open hearts and minds.    

However, I had one interaction with a Chautauquan that was extremely different and difficult. I was approached in a public space and asked, “How many of those examples did you make up, or was all of it made up?” To be honest, I was shocked to hear this question. At the center of it, I felt that my integrity as a human and as a professional was being questioned. It instantly brought back memories and stories common to me, and other historically marginalized individuals, of when our pain and our experiences are directly questioned, dismissed or ignored. When those instances happen, it feels like an affront to our human dignity.    

In my daily life, I try to practice grace and “presupposition,” a Jesuit concept that invites us to approach situations with the best possible interpretation at the forefront. However, in that moment of affront, I was unable to do either. I did retort with a strong response, that I was offended that my integrity was being questioned. I was neither kind, nor patient. I did not wish to seek dialogue. I was hurt, and I wanted the other person to know that. Such a strong and closed response is extremely rare for me, but it was how I truly felt in the moment. To their credit, they did apologize. It took me a moment to gather myself and explain how the comment landed. We moved on to other topics.    

It wasn’t until later that evening that I realized something important — that I failed to understand the question from their perspective. The comment came from a Chautauquan who likely (to the best of my knowledge) has not experienced these instances of exclusion themselves on the grounds. Additionally, if we don’t experience these moments ourselves, then we might be less likely to recognize or see these instances when they are happening right in front of us. In short, they fall outside our reality and our understanding of the world. In their Chautauqua, these examples did not happen. That was an “a-ha” moment for me.   

I’m sharing this to create an invitation for all of us to practice grace and radical empathy for each other, especially when we disagree or see the world differently. I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt when their lived experience does not match mine. Instead of questioning their interpretation, I ask, “Please, tell me more.” If we do that, then we can approach conversations from a place of dialogue, and not debate. We can seek deeper understandings, build bridges to seek common ground, and affirm each other’s dignity. This is easy to preach, and hard to practice. Put yourself in the shoes of this Chautauquan. How would you approach this conversation differently? What might you say?   

This experience affirmed for me that we need to create greater dialogue and space for historically marginalized communities to share their stories within the wider Chautauqua community. This is a specific goal of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) Strategic Plan (available at, and I look forward to creating those opportunities for conversations in the future. For now, let’s work together to build love, compassion and understanding, in whatever way possible.   

Amit Taneja  
Senior Vice President & Chief IDEA Officer 

Tags : ChautauquaCommunityInclusion Diversity Equity Accessibility

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