An Exercise in Empathy: Donald Trump Supporters

The true art of empathy is being able to listen to and follow the views and motivations of people who are NOT like yourself. Especially in times of polarizing debates in which we’re all busy trying to sort out good from evil, I find it helpful to remind myself that everything people say and do – however irrational and hateful it may seem to you – makes sense in their head. I don’t believe in inherently bad people. Instead, I think their behavior is the result of their experiences, their contact with peers and their (of course selective) interpretations of the world around them.

It’s easy to hate, but more powerful to be able to empathize and design arguments or experiences that may actually change someone’s point of view. I don’t think people can be convinced by being antagonized.

As design thinkers, we are constantly talking about empathy and I think it is a skill that needs training and requires energy. Here’s a challenging training opportunity: Scott Carrier’s “Home of the Brave” recently featured thirty minutes of interviews with Donald Trump supporters. To me personally, it’s pretty unreal how anyone could seriously consider the man a reasonable candidate for president of anything. If you feel similarly, I suggest you follow this exercise:

1. Listen to the podcast HERE.
2. Take note of the motivations, experiences and values people talk about.
3. Create a persona of the Trump supporter which provides answers to questions like these:

  • My name is… From… My background…
  • I give my trust to… because…
  • I’m worried about… because…
  • I feel threatened by… because…
  • I say no to… because…
  • I think people need to realize… because…
  • I’m getting my information from… 
  • Core experiences & observations that shaped my view…

Remember, the people you are listening to are not bad or wrong. They may be misguided or misinformed. If you want to take the exercise even further, you can continue your design process:

  • I think my Trump supporter is misguided insofar as… because… (that’s your Point of View)
  • Maybe he should be able to experience… in order to… (maybe this leads you to ideas for transformative interventions)

Let me know how it goes or if you have any thoughts about it.

Edit: This post is now a year and old has, for obvious reasons, received some new attention. In the meantime, I’ve been able to try the exercise with some brave participants and it has sparked fruitful discussions. I believe it is still relevant.