This gender empathy process grew out of Dr. Norman Brown’s teaching psychology of close relations in aviation technical university where it was practiced for over fifteen years. He named it “Gender Football” to appeal to an 80% male college and made use of some football terms to make the classroom experience both challenging and rewarding. Before COVID the Love and Power Institute practiced it with middle-aged people who brought their more extensive life experience to the many encounters and discussions.

The structure aims to honor many of the real and expected gender differences in emotional awareness and expression and to achieve some highly significant moments of understanding. We raise the stakes of what is true empathy by dividing participants into two apparently rival “teams” based on gender1 and then focusing their ongoing interaction on individual emotional intimacy.

The first step is for each “team” to gather and search together for a significant action, attitude or habit of the other sex that has caused considerable pain, distress, hurt, anger or other unpleasant reaction to a few of them. It is important that most of this “kicking” team agrees that the other gender or “receiving” team probably won’t understand or agree and empathize with the issue very much. For the challenge to both understand the life experience of the opposite gender and feel their feelings are the central goals of this exercise.

In order to reach for both of these goals through personal interactions each team is led by two people. The kicking team’s two leaders craft a one- or two-sentence “headline” to present to the receiving team for their response. The receiving team picks two leaders who are willing to seek deep understanding of the kickers’ experience.

The ensuing verbal interaction is coached by the referees until both sides agree that all verbal aspects of the kickers’ experience are fully embraced by the first or active listening receiver. The referees announce a successful active listening embrace as “first and goal-to-go on the 10-yard line”. Then the second and silent receiver begins to express what may be a delicate and complex web of emotions and related thoughts in the kicker’s mind and heart. Kickers respond and referees rule on each effort. Then both teams celebrate the final successful empathic embrace as a “touchdown into the heart” (or near miss) of the kickers’ experience.

Previous exercises have often revealed several layers of unknown feeling-colored thoughts. For example, on one classroom day a deep-seated complaint of a young man was that a woman would act interested in him when she really only wanted, he slowly found out, help with something she needed, like a ride or repairs. But seriously exploring this required that men admitted to both longing for love (or sex) and some hurt underneath their expressed anger. Below this lay what’s blandly called “chivalry”; but this term points towards many men’s need for “perfection” or “heroism” without a clear list of what that should include. On their side, the young women could admit to showing interest in a man when they needed help, but they didn’t realize that their helper’s eagerness might be giving them proof of their charisma or even value as a potential mate.

Thus a deeper embrace of full-fledged empathy is easier said and imagined than achieved. Quite a bit of fruitful conversation can then happen between everyone involved. And even more riches are available if we seek to repair the strained relations unearthed through the structured encounters we can then explore.

  1. Some people today don’t identify with socially constructed gender norms. So they can choose the team they wish to join.

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