Stronger Together: Finding True Diversity through Empathetic Listening

David Martyn Conley
November 2018
Counselor and camper hugging

Camp Includes Me Series

This feature article is part of an ongoing series of articles in Camping Magazine that will focus on inclusion, diversity, and cross-cultural agility to share in our individual communities and out in the world. (2018) defines diversity as “the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, color, religion, socioeconomic stratum, sexual orientation, etc.” A lot of us take this definition at face value. Diversity, in this case, means the attendance of representatives from different backgrounds. Therefore, if camps have a percentage of people from different ethnicities, etc., they are considered, by definition, diverse. Is attendance enough? Achieving true diversity requires a shift in thinking and action.

A word often associated with diversity is tolerance. Historically, in the United States, people have often exhibited a resistance to diversity and inclusion. The Civil Rights Movement and school desegregation are a couple examples of the intense level of pushback diversity recognition has received in this country. The notion of tolerance helped to usher in more diverse representation in the workplace, at school, and ultimately, at camps. Tolerance is often defined as “the ability or willingness to endure something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” At camp, this endurance sometimes means that we will allow someone from a different background to attend a camp experience with us without actively discouraging them. This lack of discouraging behavior is considered acceptance and inclusion. Meanwhile, the person from a different background may never get to hear their voice explored or represented. Assimilation is the only option, because all that is required for the camp to achieve diversity is the attendance of one person from a different background. We allow their presence without acknowledging the merit of that presence. We can do better.

In a 2018 Reader’s Digest article, “The Psychology of How We Learn Prejudice: Are We Natural-Born Racists?” writer Chris Mooney quotes University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek as saying, “Prejudice draws on many of the same tools that help our minds figure out what’s good and what’s bad.” Mooney goes on to say, the trouble comes when the brain uses similar processes to form negative views about groups of people. He is essentially saying we reduce groups of people to snap decisions and stereotypes (Mooney, 2018).

Status Assignments

This survival instinct coupled with societal and parental conditioning creates views and opinions about the inherent good or evil of particular groups. We make judgements about the worth of people based on these views and opinions. These judgements control the status we assign other people. These status assignments determine the degree to which we tolerate each person or group. Low status assignments always result in relationships with low levels of trust and creativity and shallow, defensive interactions. Whenever one or more people in an interaction or relationship assign low status, it is difficult for that relationship to flourish. It is difficult for people to really get to know each other in a way that promotes positive communication. The only way for us to reach true diversity is to give merit, weight, and respect to everyone’s contribution. We must assign everyone equal high status. High status assignments result in relationships rich in trust, creativity, and energy.

In my diversity class we play an illustrative game called The Status Cafe. We use a trained improvisational actor who portrays a customer who seems to treat everyone with low status. A volunteer from the audience plays the restaurant owner who continues to treat the customer with high status. The game is designed to illustrate a few key points to the class, such as the way they view the customer who treats everyone with low status, the way they view the restaurant owner who treats everyone with high status, and how these assignments impact the interaction and potential relationship.

There are four nonnegotiable rules to status:

  1. Whenever you lower someone’s or something’s status, you lower your own in the eyes of others.
  2. Whenever you raise someone’s or something’s status, you raise your own in the eyes of others.
  3. Whenever you raise the status of youth or youth leaders, you not only raise your own status, but the status of the entire organization.
  4. Growth can only occur when all parties are operating on an equal high-status level.

We put a lot of weight on status assignments because tolerance allows us to hold on to low status assignments for others, covertly, while giving ourselves credit for embracing diversity. It is important that we look at diversity with honest eyes. We must make the extra effort to really share the camp experience in a way that lets us learn about other cultures, ethnicities, backgrounds, and points of view. We should not just settle for attendance, but push for positive interaction. We must be brave enough to give the same high status to others that we demand for ourselves.

According to an article on, a Gallop poll after the 2016 election found that nearly 80 percent of Americans see the country as “greatly divided when it comes to the most important values” (Gershon, 2017). This is a prime example of how diversity is impacted by poor status assignments. One of the great issues polarizing the country is the kneeling of athletes during the playing of the National Anthem. NFL Football player Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the National Anthem to protest the killing of young black men at the hands of law enforcement officers. Some other athletes joined his protest. The assumption about Kaepernick and those who protested alongside him was that they were disrespecting the flag, veterans, and the ideals of the United States. Kaepernick and others who protested with him have stated they wanted the country to live up to its great ideals. The common ground that should have been easy to find was obscured by intolerance and low status assignments. Still, a great example came out of this divide. Kaepernick met with veteran Nate Boyer, who first viewed the quarterback’s protest as offensive. The two men agreed to meet with each other. They sat down and had a conversation. They reached beyond surface tolerance and found common ground. Each of them tried to see the issue from the other’s point of view. In doing this, they achieved true diversity.

True Diversity

So, how do we achieve this level of true diversity? We first have to take personal responsibility for achieving diversity. This means we decide to not accept attendance alone as our definition of diversity. We must actively create and encourage deeper, more meaningful relationships. This is easy when we are dealing with like-minded people. It is more challenging when we are faced with people from a different background or someone who has different views. Most often we stop somewhere around the fact that the person is different. We view that difference as deficient. This creates an automatic disparagement of status. We can choose a different path. We have the ability to respond to diversity opportunities in a way that truly promotes a greater camp experience.

Next to survival, our greatest human need is to be understood. This need for expression shows itself in what we wear, what we drive, where we live, etc. Camp is a safe place for our expression to exist. True diversity is about harnessing this expression and using it to foster stronger interactions. These interactions have the potential to become lasting friendships.

So, how do we harness this need for expression in a way that promotes true diversity?

Empathetic Listening

Empathetic listening is a great way to connect with another person’s point of view. At camp, we practice this wonderful principle. I used to think I was a wonderful listener. People talked. My ears were open. The problem was, I could rarely tell people something meaningful I had heard from them. When I first heard of empathetic listening, I asked my wife Sharon if she thought I was a good listener. She replied with a hearty laugh from deep in her abdomen. It was like she had been holding this in for a while. I stared at her in confusion. This resulted in more laughter.

After what seemed an eternity, we were able to discuss the question and her answer. Sharon told me that I was not, in fact, a good listener. My intentions were good, but my execution was lacking. This conversation was the first time I listened with empathy and understanding. Formerly, I listened to people with the intent to quickly ascertain the essential points and move on.

Empathetic listening requires you to take responsibility to actually connect with the other person’s point of view. It does not require you to agree with their point of view, but you do have to work hard to hear them and understand. When you listen properly, even if you ultimately disagree, you will respond in a way that shows you heard and understand. Then, you can decide if you actually agree or disagree.


There are some challenges in empathetic listening. The first to avoid is listening autobiographically. It can be easy to confuse autobiographical listening with relating or having empathy. When you attempt to understand the other person’s point of view, it is only natural to search your history for common ground. Though some circumstances can be similar or the same, we must remember that their effect on each person is unique. Therefore, filtering what a person says through your own experiences can compromise the quality of your understanding. It is important to resist this temptation. Also, resist the temptation to judge the other person’s experience or point of view. When attempting to truly understand what is being said, we have to listen beyond the temptation to assign labels to the message or the messenger. We want to fully understand what is being said before deciding on an adequate response.

Roughly 93 percent of communication is nonverbal (Gleisner, 2016). The challenge is that what we see is at least as important as what we hear. Empathetic listening requires us to listen with two eyes as well as two ears. This way we are privy to how the person feels about what they are saying. Sometimes, a person can convey volumes of information without uttering a single word. Listening with your eyes and ears facilitates a more solid connection with the other person.

States of Empathetic Listening 

There are four stages of empathetic listening:

  1. Mimic the content. A person makes a statement to you, saying, “I don’t like hotdogs.” You would repeat the words back to them by saying, “What I’m hearing you say is you don’t like hotdogs.” This lets them know you heard their words, but also gives you the opportunity to let the words resonate with you.
  2. Rephrase the content. The person has stated that they do not like hotdogs. You have repeated those words back to them. You then say, “Are you saying, you don’t like processed meat?” The speaker then has the opportunity to clarify their message, if need be. They may say, “No, I like salami. I just don’t like hotdogs.” Now you have a better understanding.
  3. Reflect the feeling. In this stage, you pay particular attention to the speaker’s body language and inflection. The term reflect may suggest you copy the feeling in front of the speaker. This can be counterproductive depending on the nature and intensity of the speaker’s emotion. Instead, pay attention to their body language and allow it to help you interpret the message more accurately. A person who calmly says, “I don’t like hotdogs” is very different from a person who vehemently states it in a loud voice. Whatever you do, do not give that second person a hotdog.
  4. Respond. With all of this done correctly, you respond in a way that shows you heard and understand their message. This fourth stage may sound like, “I understand. What do you say we go to lunch at this great sandwich shop down the street?” Keep in mind, these stages are fluid. They can, and often will, be used simultaneously or in different orders.

Find Someone Different

I challenge you to find someone you do not know. Find someone different. The difference could be their race, sexual orientation, or even political view. I challenge you to engage them in conversation. Make sure to keep their status assignments high. Utilize the four stages of empathetic listening. It is my guess you will have a positive interaction. You may even make a friend. When we try this exercise in live classes, there are always smiles around the room. The positive energy feeds on itself. Think what would happen if you made this experiment the first of many interactions.

Make a concerted effort to recruit a broad range of young people for your camp. The attendance of young people from varied backgrounds, with different views on life, is just the beginning of achieving true diversity. Once attendance has been achieved, we must diligently, intentionally promote respect for everyone’s contribution. We must see different without seeing deficient. There is so much we have to teach each other. There is so much we have to learn. There are opportunities to learn within youth groups. There are opportunities to learn among youth leaders. There are certainly opportunities for these two groups to learn from each other.

Differences are not only defined by race, ethnicity, or gender identity. Sometimes diversity exists among different age groups, neighborhoods, schools, or interest groups. The point is, there is always an opportunity to follow the example set by serviceman Nate Boyer and athlete Colin Kaepernick. Just because our views or backgrounds are different does not mean we cannot find common ground. We can always work to find true diversity.

Assigning equal high status to everyone, while modeling and promoting empathetic listening, could be the keys to establishing an unforgettable camp experience.


  • Gershon, L. (2017, November 8). Just how divided are Americans since Trump’s election? History. Retrieved from
  • Gleisner, J. (2016, March 20). Nonverbal communication percentage. Silent Communication. Retrieved from
  • Mooney, C. (2018, July 13). The psychology of how we learn prejudice: Are we natural-born racists? Writer’s Digest. Retrieved from

David Martyn Conley is committed to the development of young people nationwide. Conley has facilitated or developed training for camps across the country through Expert Online Training. Conley was a presenter and keynote speaker at the 2017 Ontario Camp Association Conference. He also presented at the 2018 ACA conference in Orlando, Florida.

Photo courtesy of Yosemite Sierra Summer Camp, San Clemente, California.