A Matter of Respect

uluruIn central Australia, there’s a huge sandstone formation called Uluru. It rises 1,142 feet above the surrounding flatlands of the outback. Discovered in 1873 by surveyor William Gosse, it was given the English name Ayer’s Rock; in honor of Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of Australia at the time. At almost six miles in circumference, Uluru is striking landmark; seemingly changing colors depending on the day and time of day you view it. Since the 1950’s, Uluru has been sought out by tourists wanting to see it for themselves.

Many also want to climb it. It’s a steep climb and a chain handrail was added in 1964 to aid those making the trek to the top. About a third of visitors to Uluru have decided to climb, despite opposition from the locals. Uluru has great cultural and spiritual significance to the indigenous people, the Pitjantjatjara Anangu. Archeologists have found evidence of human habitation at Uluru dating back more than 10,000 years. The route of the tourist climb crosses a sacred dreamtime track, a route used by the Aborigines to commune with their ancestors.

As you can imagine, opinions differ on the morality of climbing Uluru. Some choose to honor the feelings of the Anangu. They are sensitive to how their actions impact others and seek out ways to enjoy the area without disrespecting those with strong ties to the land. Others see only their own interests. They view access to Uluru as a right and can’t understand why the simple act of climbing a rock would upset anyone.

Empathy is the ability to feel someone else’s emotions, and taking action to help. Those who can empathize with Anangu for example, can understand the pain of watching others treat a sacred place of worship as a tourist attraction. They can see how their own actions could easily add to the pain being felt, and so they alter their behavior in order to ease that pain.

Empathy is one component of emotional intelligence, and plays a key role in interpersonal relationships. At home, at work, and in the community – empathy is what connects us to other people and makes it possible for us to interact in mutually beneficial ways. A lack of empathy is often the cause of dysfunctional relationships and has been shown to be a factor in many studies of productivity and workplace satisfaction.

Experts offer the following tips to help develop your empathy muscle:

  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • Show care and concern.
  • Acknowledge the other person’s feelings.
  • Ask questions to help you understand.
  • Mirror aspects of their behavior to build rapport.
  • Don’t run ahead of the conversation.
  • Don’t judge.
  • Show emotional support (trust and affirmation).

This past Friday, the last climbers descended from Uluru just after sunset. As part of an agreement with tribal elders, and bolstered by growing public support, this particular tourist attraction is now permanently closed. You can still hike around the base of Uluru, and there are plans for additional attractions that will help showcase the rock and its historical impact; but climbing is illegal and subject to hefty fines.

The reclusive indigenous people of central Australia are excited about the future; for all who visit Uluru. They feel a connection to the land that runs deep. It’s a connection they feel can and should be shared – with those willing to listen.