Empathy is a fairly popular topic right now. As more and more diversity is recognized in our society and therefore becomes apparent, we hear of more and more incidents of intolerance and negativity. From the #blacklivesmatter movement, to the R-word campaign, to a multitude of workplace code of conduct courses, I see the need for empathy everywhere. I have been involved in writing a number of workplace training programs, many of which desire to improve empathy. A strategy that I have used repeatedly is putting the learner in someone else’s shoes. This means taking the point of view of not just the person who is be subjugated, but also the person who is behaving inappropriately because it is often easier to recognize inappropriate behaviours and a lack of empathy in someone else, compared to seeing it in ourselves.
I wasn’t particularly surprised then, to learn that there is a growing body of research that examines the impact of reading fiction on empathy. As we are transported by the author into the world and experiences of the characters in a novel, we feel with them. We get upset when we see that they are being mistreated, we feel joy when our favourite characters get what they want, or what they need. And we feel satisfaction when we finish a book and know that the character will be alright. This is the heart of empathy. The ability to see where another person is coming from, and fiction allows us such in depth access into the characters, access that we don’t generally have with real people, that we can develop that understanding, and then apply it to our daily lives.
The requirement however, is that we must be emotionally transported into the story (something that is more difficult when you can constantly click on a link, or change the channel). It makes me think of the movie The Princess Bride. As the grandfather reads the story to his grandson, the grandson starts not really caring. He asks to skip the mushy bits and get to the fighting. But then, later on when the grandfather stops reading because the boy is getting upset we realize that the boy has been transported into the story. He now relates to the characters and is upset at the injustice that is occurring. He is demonstrating empathy.
Just one more reason to keep reading.