In her shoes: the role of empathy in our conversations

Ruth's sensible footwear
Ruth’s sensible footwear


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 agriculture can 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 about agriculture 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.


Calgary Stampede: an Ag Media Postscript

Well, another Stampede has come and gone. I have been to a few Stampedes in my lifetime and enjoyed each and every one. But this year marks something different for me – and more than just the fact that the Calgary Stampede celebrated its 100th Anniversary. My experiences this year were unique. This year I was one of 2000 volunteers that were part of serving the Stampede and its patrons.

Last year on Twitter, I started following an amazing young agvocate – Rosie Templeton. During the 2011 Stampede, Rosie was interning with the Ag Media Committee. Through Rosie, I was introduced to the great work that this Committee does in service to the Stampede and in service to agriculture overall. I thought to myself, “Self, wouldn’t this be a great Committee to work on with the Stampede?”

Well, we got the ball rolling – Rosie and I – and eventually I was connected to and embraced by an unbelievable group of women affiliated with the Ag Media Committee – all capable, professional, responsive and warm. I couldn’t ask for a better group of agvocate-colleagues! Through working with this Committee, I experienced many wonderful things at this year’s Centennial Stampede!

1. I got to help out various morning shows segments (Global, CTV, Breakfast Television) with the morning “hits” bringing animals (from Ag-tivity in the City, Country Critters and the Ag Barns) in for the programs and organizing special interactive features for hosts (Leslie Horton, Cynthia Roebuck and Jill Belland). Got to work with other radio personalities and journalists, too, all in the name of promoting and featuring agriculture!

“How YOU doin’?” (one of my favourites at Country Critters)

Erin Wilde of KOOL 101.5 interviews cowboy cutters, Dustin Gonnet and Cody Smith.

2. I rode Hamish, a hugely handsome Clydesdale that is part of the Express Clydesdales entourage (thanks to Doug Sauter for his participation and support). Hamish also pulled the Express coach that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge rode in at the 2011 Stampede. I guess you might say that I am one step closer to Royalty! …Well, sort of.

Me and Hamish (for the record, he likes mints)

3. I got to be part of the Centennial Celebrations by joining my fellow Stampede volunteers at one of the daily cake cutting ceremonies held in the Pavilion. Joining us was “Rancher Jack” who never ceases to entertain the crowds with his antics and humour! The Stampede gave out 500 free pieces of cake every day! Yummy!

Western Performance Horse Committee volunteer Michele Waldner and Rancher Jack ‘cuttin’ a rug’ at Centennial celebrations in the Pavilion.

4. Subsequently, I became quite a fan of “Rancher Jack” so I sent a colorful ‘incognito’ love note to him via his mailbox in the Pavilion signing it “your secret admirer” (tee hee – shhhhh, don’t tell The Cowboy).

5. I got to spend some time in the International Agriculture Committee’s International Room, meeting folks from all over the world! Australia, Germany, US, Jamaica. Good stuff!

Me and Ag Media Vice Chair, Nicole Hensen, locked up in Draft Horse Town. Mayor Dale Befus sprung us and we are now ‘on the lam’ with the help of some of our international ag friends!

6. My fellow Ag Media peep, Emily, and I participated in a Tweet-Off at the Social Media Hub hosted by the Calgary Herald. For the record, @embkay kicked my ‘sorry tweetin’ butt’.

Ag Media Committee member, Emily Kay, and me at the Calgary Herald’s High Noon Tweet off!

7. Sat in on the Rodeo, cheered on the Chucks, ate kettle cooked popcorn ’til I was positively green!

Me and the Duke. Yeah, we go way back.

8. And a big deal for me personally was watching my kid @tanyaryanmusic win the Nashville North Competition. Yay!!! Follow Tanya Ryan on Facebook and Twitter (@tanyaryanmusic). There is lots coming up for her!

Tanya Ryan, Nashville North Star (Calgary Sun, July 11, 2012)

At this year’s Stampede, I learned much; I experienced much. It was a great year! And I look forward to many, many more and to rejoining my Ag Media colleagues and other Stampede enthusiasts for next year’s celebrations! If you didn’t make it to Stampede, here is a link to what you missed: 100 Unforgettable Stampede Moments (Calgary Herald). I highly recommend that you put the Calgary Stampede on your calendar for next year!