Empathy: “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another of either the past or the present.” Also, “mental entrance into the feeling or spirit of a person or thing; appreciative perception or understanding.”
When all is said and done, empathy comes down to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes – or, better said, “walking a mile in” someone else’s moccasins.” What a valuable skill for us as creatives! When we bring empathy to the page, we enich and enliven our characters: they have more depth and they seem more real, truer to life. Whether we’re crafting a novel, memoir, or historical nonfiction, cultivating this quality will serve us well. How can we boost our empathy IQ, both in our personal lives and our work? A few ideas:
Practice deep listening: When we tun of our own busy, churning minds and truly listen to the people we’re talking to and hoping to connect with, we gain deeper insights into what really matters to them and how they think. One easy way to prompt richer conversations is to simply say, “Tell me more” – and then sit back.
Welcome silence: When you’re having a conversation with someone, don’t shy away from silence. Often there’ just as much happening when no one is speaking as when they are. Silence also gives someone the ability to probe a thought more deeply – often what emerges is insightful and even surprising.
Observe body language: Body language – what a goldmine it offers us! We can learn so much about a person we’re talking to and convey so much to our readers about a character we’re creating through physical observation and description. Eye contact is especially key. Really looking someone in the eye can tell you so much about who hey are and what they’re thinking about. Consider how sinister a shifty eyed character appears in a story.
Analyze full-bodied fictional characters: We can learn so much by honing in on the ways a writer we admire creates a character who seems to leap off the page. Whether it’s Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice or Hamlet – diving deeply into how these characters are constructed is a wonderfully inspiring way to sharpen our own writing.
Sit and summon up: Sometimes it can be fun and very instructive to simply sit quietly and summon up a character from the ether and just watch as if they were appearing in a movie. Insights and ideas will often emerge from the silence.
Empathy enlivens! Let’s add this powerful quality to our lives and work as we all write on!