Podcasts Taught Me Compassion

How to pump empathy through your earbuds.

Author by Kaitlin Ugolik
Art credit: Kelsey Tyler

I try to make a habit of “walking a mile in another person’s shoes,” especially when I disagree with someone or don’t understand their experience.

This is easy to do when you’re a kid because you’re taught that everyone gets a turn to talk. These days, however, it seems like it’s everyone’s turn to talk, all the time. And as I’ve gotten older, and political and cultural issues have become more intensely central to our private and public lives, I’ve found it harder to listen to — and feel empathy for — people I disagree with. 

Then, about a year ago, I discovered a simple, soothing way to become more understanding and tolerant of different points of view: I started listening to podcasts all the time.  

Most of us know empathy as the ability to understand how other people feel, which helps us manage interpersonal relationships and avoid becoming psychopaths. But it can be difficult to empathize with people who don’t share your worldview. This difficulty is amplified during times of intense social upheaval and divisive political turmoil, when it’s so easy to focus on your own feelings and dismiss other people’s as annoying noise.

That’s how I felt after the 2016 US presidential election, and I know I wasn’t alone. Reading the news became an anxiety-inducing chore; every day brought an alarming new policy announcement, followed by a wave of social media vitriol. On Facebook and Twitter, where I went to find news stories, there were only two options: commiserate with like-minded people or argue with friends and family members whom I suddenly found it hard to relate to.

I had to break the cycle of living between heart-stopping news alerts and warring internet factions. So, a few weeks after the aforementioned election, I retreated to the world of podcasts, where I couldn’t get into a debate or click a “like” button. I just listened, quietly, as people I didn’t know shared information, views, and experiences. And this simple, passive activity reminded me how empathy is supposed to work.

During long walks to and from my office, and whenever I’d work out my frustrations at the gym, I listened to podcasts like This American Life, The Sporkful, RadioLab, and Another Round. Also helpful: She & Her, a podcast by two women in Hillsborough, NC, that focuses on issues facing millennial women; With Friends Like These, in which host Ana Marie Cox has difficult conversations about politics and culture without yelling or name-calling; and Conversations With People Who Hate Me, in which Dylan Marron has just that.

I soon realized that my favorite podcasts had become more than a distraction. There was something about the way these shows gave people a platform to speak without interruption that made room for empathy where I’d been feeling confusion and resentment.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about the power of listening. But having someone else’s voice, quite literally, living in my ear somehow made the listening process more intimate and vulnerable. I found myself hanging on the words of people whose stories I wouldn’t have sought out on my own, such as a debutante and a sex shop owner. Hearing about their lives, straight from them, moved me to open my mind.

It turns out there’s some science to this. According to Matt Johnson, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Hult International Business School in San Francisco, our brains are hyper-visual. In fact, they’re so visual that we can’t help but create images in our mind when we listen. And this process — of visualizing the stories we hear — can trigger empathy. “Audio is a much more covert sense than vision, so it may lend itself more easily to perspective-taking, which forms the basis of empathy,” Johnson said. “When you’re listening to something, your imagination can go further.”

It can be cringe-inducing to tune in to debate-heavy podcasts, such as With Friends Like These by Ana Marie Cox. Even Dan Pashman’s culinary show, The Sporkful, can get intense on issues of food politics. But that’s the point; Cox and Pashman have taught me new ways to have calm, compassionate conversations about topics that make my nostrils flare. 

One day, on my way to work, I was listening to the left-leaning Cox get into identity politics with her Republican friend, and my jaw actually dropped. Right when I would have expected things to go off the rails, the two of them made an honest effort to listen. There it was — a bright, shining example of how to interact with someone you disagree with, without yelling or crying or blocking or all-caps-ing.

Now I keep Pashman and Cox’s voices on my mind, and their shows in my back pocket, whenever I need an empathy refresher.  

My Empathy Podcast Playlist

This American Life, NPR, new episodes most Sundays
The Sporkful, WNYC, new episodes most Sundays
RadioLab, WNYC, see site for new episodes
Another Round, formerly BuzzFeed, new episodes once a week, currently on hiatus
She & Her, WHUP, new episodes most Thursdays
With Friends Like These Crooked Media, new episodes on Fridays
Conversations With People Who Hate Me, Night Vale Presents, returning 4/2/18

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