In her shoes: the role of empathy in our conversations

Ruth's sensible footwear

Ruth’s sensible footwear

Last month marked the closing of the Dewdney Players production of The Calendar Girls (Tim Firth). 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 “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.

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

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

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.”

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.

The more empathy, the better. It’s a no-brainer, right?

Yale professor Paul Bloom views empathy a bit differently. He qualifies empathy as “narrow-minded, parochial, and innumerate”. Oooh. Ouch. Now, before we all get up in Bloom’s grill over this, it might be best to qualify his perspective a bit more.  Make no mistake, Bloom does value the importance of empathy as part of human-to-human interaction and a basis for mutual understanding. But Bloom states that empathy, in practice, can often be divisive. Especially when empathy is muddied by emotional bias and when that emotional bias leads to bad social policy.

So, maybe society’s struggle is less about an ‘empathy gap’ but, rather, with ‘misplaced empathy’. We need to ask ourselves: Are we unduly influenced by our tribes and by our cognitive biases? (Likely, see Kahan 2012) Are we stuck in echo chambers where we are completely unaware that our empathies may be misplaced? (Yes, and our ‘fast information nation‘ only serves to exacerbate the problem).

I am not advocating for the abandonment of empathy through these musings. Not at all. Rather, I see this as more of a call-to-action for us to better understand how our emotions, biases and behaviours drive our actions. A combination of empathy, self-awareness, AND reason seem to be in order here (see Cummins and Cummins 2013 and Konnikova 2012).

“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 or way of thinking. 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.

The sunflower figures heavily in the story of The Calendar Girls. It is a symbol of remembrance, forgiveness, friendship optimism and renewal. Photo courtesy: Jenny Dewey Rohrich

The sunflower figures heavily in the story of The Calendar Girls. It is a symbol of remembrance, forgiveness, friendship, optimism, and renewal.
Photo courtesy: Jenny Dewey Rohrich

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)

This is hard work. And 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:

  • Acknowledge the importance of background and subject matter knowledge
  • Understand the arguments of both the defenders and the skeptics
    1. Be willing to put yourself in another’s headspace and be prepared to dwell in that space for a while
    2. Understand how the human animal processes information (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 convictions/beliefs (including your own)
  • Remember, it’s a conversation, not a conversion
  • Value truth, understanding, the relationship and the person above any ‘conversational wins’

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

“…[W]ho do you think might be more effective … someone who is judgemental, 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.”

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

Filling and “Feeling in” those shoes

“Ruth Reynoldson”

There is nothing like donning the sensible footwear, a conservative cardigan and 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 the story.

“Calendar Girl” Ruth Reynoldson is a most interesting character, one that I have grown to love since I was given the role this past June. Over the months, I built a relationship with Ruth. Through her eyes, I learned more about the other characters in the play and I have even learned a little bit more about me.

“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.

Thanks to Jenny Dewey Rohrich for allowing me to include her beautiful sunflower photo on this blog post. 


Risks of farming… are there more or less? What do you think?

January 19, 2011

This article is a bit disconcerting – “Superbugs, Agricultural Antibiotics, and Farm-Worker Infections: A New Study Connects the Dots” (Twilley, January 14, 2011).  This is by no means my area of expertise,  the relationship between the use of antibiotics in agricultural practice and  increased disease resistance in humans, and nor can I judge the credibility of the source or the writer (perhaps someone out there can?).  Nevertheless, it brings to mind the notion of ‘risk’ and the farming vocation – and my family.


Grandpa Abraham & Grandma Barbara (circa ~1953)

My grandfather emigrated from Norway to Canada (through the US) in the late 1800s. He worked in New York for a time before crossing the border into what was then the Territories (now Saskatchewan).  He settled there, raised a family and farmed the land.  My grandfather died long before I was born.  But I remember watching my uncles working in the yard.  I distinctly recall Uncle Jacob dipping his bare arm into a 5 gallon pail of agricultural chemical, nonchalantly stirring it around,  then deftly wiping the excess with a rag and carrying on.  All of my uncles did this… All of my (farming) uncles have long since passed, and all of them due to neurological or brain related disease/cancer.  Now, I am not certain if there is relationship between the manner of their deaths and these unusual (unsafe) practices – but it is highly suspect.

Despite this, I feel that agriculture has progressed leaps and bounds since that time.  Safety is practiced far more diligently on-farm now more than ever. We know how to handle the chemicals and we are no longer ignorant to risk, so we know how to mitigate them.

According to the “Superbug” article, 3.7% of working farmers (in this study) were diagnosed with MRSA related infections. That rate seems alarming but if we put this all in historical context, would it not be safe to assume that the risks of farming are substantially lower now more than ever – no matter what the practice (conventional, organic or otherwise) or what inputs are used?



A breath of fresh, logical air…”Does starvation loom? – No.”

January 14, 2011

I love Twitter!  Especially when my social network shares gems like this.

Author Matt Ridley has written several books on evolution, genetics and society (check out the list on Amazon at: Sorry, Matt.  I have to admit, I haven’t read any of your books… but my interest has been piqued and I have had added several of the tomes to my growing ‘to read’ list.  

Anyway, back to the ‘gem’… A link to Matt’s latest blog entry entitled “Feeding of the nine billion” ( was circulated through Twitter today (via #scio11).  This is a GREAT piece!  In it, this ‘Rational Optimist’ addresses/challenges (what I would call in some cases) the hype around the issues of food security and a growing population, food prices and world ag production.  :

Here are a few of my favourite @mattwridley illustrative quotes from Ridley’s blog entry (which, by the way, was also posted in The Times, January 14, 2011):


“…the rate of [population] growth is decelerating. World population is now growing at just over 1% a year, down from roughly 2% in the 1960s. The actual number of people added to the world population each year has been dropping for more than 20 years.”

“…the UN estimates that the population will most probably peak at 9.2 billion in about 2075 before starting a slow decline. Population quadrupled in the twentieth century; it will not even double in this.”


“…if you take inflation into account. Food prices are up in real terms since 2000, but they are still about 30% below the level in 1980 and 85% down since 1900. In terms of wages, the decline has been even steeper.”

“Despite a doubling of the population, global food production per head is 30% up on what it was in the 1950s…Besides, the current spike in food prices is caused by prosperity, not desperation.”


“Farm yields have been marching upwards for decades and will continue to do so. In the past sixty years, the total harvest of the big three crops that provide the bulk of our calories – maize, wheat and rice – has trebled, yet the acreage planted has hardly changed.”

“The more yields increase, the more land can be set aside from food production for reforestation and national parks. This is happening already. National parks are expanding steadily…”

“Don’t forget another factor. Carbon dioxide levels in the air are rising. CO2 is a raw material that plants use to make sugars, which is why many greenhouse owners pump CO2 over their crops to boost production. The results of more than 600 experiments with rice, wheat and soybeans exposed to the sort of carbon dioxide levels expected by 2050 (an extra 300 parts per million) all show remarkably consistent 30+% increases in yield.”

FINAL @mattwridley THOUGHT:

“For all these reasons food production will probably continue to rise faster than population in the decades ahead. There will still be price spikes caused by bad weather or foolish policies, and there will be challenges: policies that encourage innovation cannot be taken for granted. Yet so long as trade is free and innovation flourishes, by 2050 it is easily possible that we can feed nine billion people with more and better food from less land.”

And for all you humanitarian types out there, you are going to love this!  Ridley is giving roughly half of the advance royalty received from his book The Rational Optimist ( to three charities: Farm Africa, The International Policy Network and AgBioWorldFoundation.  These are agencies/organizations that are helping those in need, especially in Africa, to trade, farm and innovate.  

The Matt Ridley Equation:  Prolific, insightful writer + Charitable = Awesomesauce!  ;o) 


Life-cycle of linen – from flower to fibre

Director Benoit Millet from France just released this exquisitely-shot fifteen-minute-long film, “Be Linen” based in France that explains the process behind the production of linen. (French with English subtitles)


Rayner offers some real talk on food production: Industrial farms are the future #farming #agnerds #ag #food #production

Big agriculture is the only option to stop the world going hungry

Food riots, such as those in Mozambique, could soon be seen here too unless we overhaul the way we produce food

 Jay Rayner, The Observer, Sept 12, 2010

 “If we are to survive the coming food security storm, we will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming. We need to abandon the mythologies around agriculture, which take the wholesome marketing of high-end food brands at face value – farmer in smock, ear of corn, happy pig – and recognise that farming really is an industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale, but which can still be managed sustainably.


Call for New Techniques to Improve Wheat Production #wheat #production #genetics

Geneticists Call for New Techniques to Advance Wheat Production


Researchers Robert Graybosch and James Peterson from the Oregon State University examined the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data on wheat yield in the Great Plain region and found out that the yield increase is slowing. They said that the data “suggests a plateau has been reached.” Thus, they suggest that there is a need for the use of available production techniques on a wider scale to increase the wheat productivity.

“Use of these more productive areas for wheat production could, temporarily at least, continue to meet world demands for wheat. In the long term, however, effective strategies to increase the genetic gain for wheat grain yield must be identified,” Graybosch and Peterson wrote in their paper published in the Crop Science Society of America. They concluded that “further improvement in the genetic potential for grain yield awaits some new technological or biological advance.”

GM Plantings Explode in Australia!

Stock & Land (Australia)
By Gregor Heard
July 8, 2010

THE advent of commercialised genetically modified (GM) canola cropping in Western Australia in 2010 has seen the national GM canola acreage more than treble, according to Australian Oilseeds Federation (AOF) estimates.
And although it is the first year of production in WA, the west already makes up over 50pc of the acreage.

There will be 72,790ha of GM canola in WA out of a national total of 133,330ha, grown in WA, Victoria and NSW, with the latter two states in their third year producing Roundup Ready (RR) canola.

Based on the AOF’s June production estimates, GM plantings will make up around 8pc of the total canola crop of around 1.61 million hectares.

Victoria will be the second largest producer, growing 36,500ha and NSW is estimated to be planting 24,040ha.

The big increase in plantings is being seen as a win for the technology, according to its developers, in spite of the fact the overall canola plantings are also up 15pc, due to a combination of pricing opportunities and favourable seasonal conditions.

On a related note, USDA’s planted acreage report shows another increase in the use of biotech seed varieties. USDA estimates 93 percent of the US soybean acreage was planted with biotech varieties, up from 91 percent a year ago. Corn biotech varieties were planted on 86 percent of this year’s acreage, up from 85 percent last year. 

… MORE in Truth about Trade @

we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming…

An article by Rob Paarlberg:

Attention Whole Foods Shoppers: Stop obsessing about arugula. Your “sustainable” mantra — organic, local, and slow — is no recipe for saving the world’s hungry millions.

By Rob Paarlberg
Foreign Policy
May / June 2010

“If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system … Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.”

Flax Acreage expected to drop this year…

In light of the recent Triffid issue, a drop in acreage is not a

Flax acreage predicted to drop
by Neil Billinger

Larry Weber of Weber Commodities is quoted as saying: “There are some estimates in the trade as high as 1.3 million acres…I have seen some as low as 700,000 acres. I think 700,000 will be on the low side, but I don’t think we are going to get to a million acres of flax this year.”

Weber says European buyers are paying more for flax than last year. Even so, he estimates growers are losing a minimum of $3 a bushel.

Canadian producers planted 1.7 million acres of flax in 2009.

Read more at:

Planting Farm Saved Flaxseed this Spring?

Guidelines for Testing for Producers
March 26, 2010
Flax Council of Canada

Procedures for testing Farm Saved Seed:

* To ensure the highest confidence in the testing procedures, a sample of seed must be drawn across the entire lot of seed. This may be done a number of ways; however the best and most preferred method is to sample directly from a clean seed stream. This includes but is not limited to sampling as the clean seed is:
o coming off the cleaners,
o being loaded into a truck,
o being transferred from the truck into a seed bin on farm.

* A minimum 4 subsamples per 1 metric tonne (1 sample per 10 bu) must be drawn and mixed thoroughly. e.g. a 5 mt lot will require 20 subsamples
* A lot may not be any larger than 20 mt.
* A representative 2 kg sample is to be submitted to a lab on the FCC’s list of approved testing labs for Triffid testing (4×60 g).
* At harvest or delivery of the 2010 crop, the grower will be asked to provide a certificate of laboratory analysis that verifies the planting seed tested negative.

A list of ISO approved laboratory is provided as well.