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.

References:

Monsanto is a strange land and I was strange in it…

Highlights:

  • Transitioning from the public sector researcher into a new position in the private sector is challenging – both professionally and personally.
  • Learnings:
    • being different is an asset,
    • being vulnerable can lift you up,
    • asking for help is OK, and
    • maintaining a sense of self in the face of adversity can come with great rewards.

——

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Four years ago today, I started my job as Social Sciences Lead with Monsanto.

The decision to transition from public sector researcher into a new position in the private sector was part strategy and part leap of faith for me. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I considered my options (along with other offers that came my way) and I decided to join Monsanto. My role was the first of its kind in the company; the first of its kind in the industry. The career challenges associated with that alone attracted me. But I was also keenly aware that social science and humanities disciplines serve an important role in understanding and informing society during difficult times. The agricultural industry – and food production more broadly – was struggling with a public image problem. While my publicly funded research activities had been largely devoted to understanding this complex environment and in communicating through it, I also believed that my new role would present greater opportunity to be part of meaningful solutions. The move to Monsanto was a risk – but it was a calculated one. I viewed this opportunity as a social science case study of a lifetime.

But I underestimated just how tough that transition would be.

After more than a year working for the company remotely from my home in Alberta, I jumped at the chance to move down to headquarters in St. Louis to work face-to-face with my Monsanto colleagues. I made the move in December of 2015 and my husband, Blair, joined me a couple of months later. We settled on a lovely little farm outside of Eureka, Missouri; one with a charming old farmhouse (in need of an update), a barn, and space that could accommodate our collection of critters (horses, dogs). It was all very idyllic and I was optimistic about the future.

Then everything changed.

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By mid-March of 2016, I found myself firmly wedged in a soul-sucking depression. In hindsight, I can identify several triggers for this. I left grown kids, friends, and family behind in Canada. I really misjudged how difficult that would be for me; how lonely I would find life so far from the people I loved. And don’t get me started on the daily commute. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (current population ~300K) was largest city I’ve ever lived in my life prior to this move. So, a 40-minute commute on major artery (formerly known as Route 66) intimidated the hell out of me. Let’s just say it wasn’t a great way to start and end each day in a job that I was already struggling to wrap my head around. I was in a new country, experiencing a new (corporate) culture. To say that the colour had faded from my life was an understatement. My days were grey and interspersed with a series of drab, monochromatic moments. I also noticed the subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) way relationships changed with my old academic friends and colleagues. Where once doors were held open wide, things had now been reduced to awkward exchanges through peepholes. While I anticipated I would be met with these kinds of challenges when I made the leap to the private sector, I was not prepared for how I would feel about it when I faced them. It was like I’d been voted off the island.

monochromatic

To be clear, this bout of depression wasn’t my ‘first rodeo’. And while I was disappointed to find my feet firmly planted in another one, I was also grateful when I finally recognized it. What I’d learned from past experiences was that being open and honest about my depression didn’t make me broken, it made me human. I recognized a pattern, too. Depression seems to find me at times of mind-numbing upheaval in my life (loss of loved ones) or major life shifts (physical moves or career changes). With this latest bout, I discovered that I lacked the emotional bandwidth to manage a life change of this magnitude. I needed help. And I got it.

Let’s face it, you can’t find your way around depression, you must find your way through it. A turning point came for me later in 2016 when the farmhouse renovation was finally done. We settled into a home life that was free of disruptive construction noises; one with a fully functioning kitchen (for us, the heart of the home). I could finally ‘nest’ and establish our ‘sanctuary’. While my connection to friends and family in the home country had indeed changed, by this point we had come up with fun, new ways to connect in creative ways through daily texts and Snapchat groups. Something that also really helped me through the dark days was guidance I received from my new boss. She provided me with a compass (a map, if you will) so that I could navigate through this very puzzling space we call ‘corporate culture’.

Companies like Monsanto traditionally hire people with know-how in finance, law, communications, agronomy, plant genetics, and engineering. I was different. I was firmly entrenched in my identity and experience as a social science academic and – for a while -I didn’t feel like I was a “fit”. You know, the proverbial ‘square peg’ in a ’round hole’. I often think that the  transition would have been so much easier if there were more people like me at the company. I recognized long ago the value that people with expertise like mine can bring to a company like this; to an industry like agriculture. But it took a while for me to convey that value in a way that my Monsanto colleagues could connect with and understand.

There are huge opportunities for all manner of social science and humanities disciplines in the agricultural industry. While corporations need to better recognize these opportunities, academia also needs to get past its antipathy towards corporations. There is room for and real opportunity in corporations for people with all kinds of expertise in the social sciences and humanities: people like cultural anthropologists, behavioral scientists, social psychologists, etc.

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Monsanto is a strange land and I was strange in it. The transition from public sector research to the private sector represented a move away from my academic ‘clan’. I was wholly unprepared for how this would affect me personally and professionally. The good news is that I found my way through it. I learned the language. Yes, there’s a ‘language’ here in the corporate space.  I learned how to communicate my ideas in ways that my colleagues could understand so that I could mobilize those ideas and get things done. I realized that I could navigate and find a place in this corporate space while still maintaining my values and my identity.

We often underestimate how even the subtlest of shifts in life can impact our capacity to manage them. What I’ve discovered through all of this is that being different is an asset, being vulnerable can lift you up, asking for help is OK, and – most importantly – maintaining a sense of self in the face of adversity can come with great rewards. You just need the courage to persevere.

cami chair
I do love colour! 🙂

Resources:

The Do More Ag Foundation “helping champion the mental well being of all Canadian producers”

Free the PhD! Find the Job. Get the job. Love your life outside the lab.

Schrage, Michael (2015). “Why the future of social science is with private companies.” Harvard Business Review. Available online at: https://hbr.org/2015/09/why-the-future-of-social-science-is-with-private-companies

Paech, Gemma. “Ten Lucrative Career Options for Social Science PhDs.” The Cheeky Scientist. Available online at: https://cheekyscientist.com/lucrative-social-science-career-options/

Ryan, Cami. (2016). Why is a social scientist working at Monsanto? Blog: Cami Ryan. Available online at: https://camiryan.com/2016/10/27/why-is-a-social-scientist-working-at-monsanto/