In her shoes: the role of empathy in our conversations

Ruth's sensible footwear
Ruth’s sensible footwear

REPRISED FROM A OCTOBER 2015 BLOG POST

Six years ago marked the closing of the Dewdney Players production of The Calendar Girl (Tim Firth) for Dewdney Players in Alberta. It was a whirlwind few-months of rehearsals leading into three weeks of packed houses and standing ovations. The experience was a brilliant one for all of us (cast, crew, directors, stagehands, and technicians) and the prospect of striking the set after the final performance was heartbreaking to say the least. I reluctantly let go of the role of “Ruth Reynoldson”.

Theatre is a passion of mine. As audience member and actor, I have found theatre both entertaining and therapeutic. Stories that play out on stage provide a lens through which to view life, society and people a bit differently.  Having roles in plays allows for even more introspection. By stepping into the shoes of a colorful character (like “Ruth”), I have had the opportunity to transform into someone whose world views were different than my own. I learned to empathize with that character.

What is empathy and why does it matter?

It may surprise you to know that the concept of empathy is a relatively new one. In her article in The Atlantic, Susan Lazoni provides a nice overview of the term’s 100 year old history. 

“Empathy” is a translation of the German word Einfühlung which means “feeling-in”.  At the time the term was coined, it was defined as not only a “means to feel another person’s emotion…” but to “enliven an object, or to project one’s own imagined feelings onto the world.”

The set of Calendar Girls Rotary Performing Arts Centre Okotoks, Alberta
Striking the set

And who doesn’t appreciate the idea of empathy? It only makes sense that the better we relate to the plights of others, the more that we respond kindly, ethically, morally, respectfully to them. Nicholas Kristoff suggests, though, that we have slumped into an “empathy gap”; a place where we have lost our capacity to understand another’s troubles. Our cognitive ‘muscles’ have become a bit sluggish, so says Kristoff.

“Even though I do not look like you or act like you, nonetheless I am like you when it comes to the capacity for suffering, and so I deserve to be treated the same as you…” – Denise Cummins, 2013.

“Feeling in”: What can we learn about empathy from the acting profession

Our first (very human) reaction is to dismiss people, things, and messages that run counter to our world views. We are naturally protective of our personal beliefs. We automatically seek out information that informs, supports and validates those beliefs.

Kevin deLaplante hosts a terrific podcast with an episode entitled “What Critical Thinkers and Communicators can Learn from the Performing Arts”.  In order to carry out their craft, actors need to understand the background, the mindset, the limitations and the possibilities of the character they are to portray.  They need to slip into that role with authenticity. They need to “be” the character and “live” the story through eyes that are often very different from their own.

We spend time having conversations with others about health, food and food production, science, politics, religion and a range of other (often controversial) topics. We constantly struggle to understand positions that are diametrically opposed to our own because that is part of the age-old human condition. In order to overcome this, we need to cultivate communication skills that force us to challenge our personal biases. Take a cue from performers:

“[They] cultivate the ability to empty themselves; to forget who they are and totally and completely become someone else.” – Kevin deLaplante.

Having tough conversations is hard work, but worth it!

Having conversations about controversial topics is hard work.  Here are a few things to think about (adapted from deLaplante) as we move forward in those conversations:

  • Understand the positions of both advocates and skeptics:
    1. Be willing to put yourself in another’s head (and heart) space and be prepared to dwell in those spaces for a while
    2. Understand how we (all of us) process information (our cognitive biases and intellectual habits)
    3. Identify beliefs, values, and assumptions that drive opinions and behaviors (including your own)
  • Commit to reconstructing the reasoning that has led to deeply held beliefs (including your own)
  • Remember, it’s a conversation, not a conversion
  • Value truth, understanding, the relationship, and the person above everything else

As Iida Ruishalme so artfully asks and answers in her article here:

“…[W]ho do you think might be more effective … someone who is judgmental, appealing to science, or someone he or she perceives as a friend, who is tolerant of his or her viewpoint, who wishes to understand? I don’t know if I could be that understanding friend. But I know I would like to be.” – Iida Ruishalme

I aspire to be that kind of friend and conversationalist, too.

Filling and “Feeling in” those shoes

Me as “Ruth Reynoldson”

There is nothing like donning sensible footwear, a conservative cardigan, and appropriating the thoughts and emotions of a story’s character. In the world of theatre, exercising empathy is an important process in understanding and adopting a character’s identity and motivation. It’s about building, animating, and authenticating a story.

“Calendar Girl” Ruth Reynoldson is a most interesting character, one that I grew to love as I took on the role for the play. For the duration of the production, I built a relationship with Ruth. Through her eyes, I learned more about the other characters in the play and…

... I even learned a little bit more about myself!

“Walk a mile…” they say ’cause everyone has a story. Understanding the whole story – the ‘bigger picture’ – takes time, commitment, empathy, critical thought and a lot of self-awareness. Mind you, the whole (story) is even greater than the sum of its parts. So, investing in that kind of conversation is worth the effort.

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