#40 The Problem with Empathy
And how one paragraph changed my entire perception of great storytelling
I often used to tell people that my superpower is empathy. I feel for and can dive into an experience with folks. It makes me a better workshop facilitator, strategist and (most important) storyteller. Empathy is the ability to understand and enter into another’s feelings. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. I care about other people’s stories and am willing to dive headfirst into them and all the emotions that come with them.
It’s essential for good storytelling. To feel for and to feel with. Sympathy or pity won’t get you there. You need to be with people and characters and audiences.
At least that’s what I used to think. A friend of mine helped me understand that there’s more to it than just empathy. Rachel Ricketts in her book Do Better, which I’ve written about a few times in this newsletter, dropped a truth bomb into my life and made me rethink my superpower. I love when that happens—having our beliefs and assumptions challenged make us better. Period.
Here’s what she said: “Empathy is the ability to feel for another, but it misses the motivating factor to act on that feeling.” What she believes in instead is the power of wise compassion. She defines compassion as suffering together. “It is the act of truly witnessing another person and their suffering and being motivated to help relieve it in some way.” As a storyteller, I’d push it beyond just suffering and say compassion includes all experiences—everything that exists in the grey between good and bad.
My empathy needs to include compassion, at least if I want to be a good storyteller. And I do. I need to feel, yes, but I also need to act.
And to be honest (correct me in the comments if you see it differently), I think my empathy has always included compassion or at least a desire for it. It is in many ways the driving force behind my need to tell stories—to do something beyond just witness once I feel for/with another person.
Storytelling, when done well, is an act of compassion, but it can’t exist or be impactful unless you come from a place of empathy. And openness to the experiences and views of others. That one paragraph in *Rachel’s book changed the way I think about myself and about my role as a storyteller. And I’m so glad for it.
*(author’s note: the respectful way to refer to an expert in a piece is by their last name, but she is a friend I’ve known for much of my life so I’m taking liberties because she knows my references to her are infused with respect and love always).
Storytelling, when done well, is an act of compassion
How do your stories exhibit compassion? How might you infuse more empathic approaches into your process? Hot tip: the first step to empathy is being open to stepping into others’ experiences and sometimes their suffering. Start with your audiences and go from there. What do they need from you? How can you better understand, feel for/with and act in a way that is compassionate through your stories?
Explore that and see how your stories change (for the better).
A Story Well Told
I love visual art. Paintings and sculptures and all the other ways artists express themselves. I seek it out often in hopes that I’ll encounter a piece that speaks to my soul. The first time it happened was seeing La Vie by Picasso at the Vancouver art gallery in my early twenties. Seeing it hit me like a ton of bricks. Before then, I didn’t really know art could do that. I was wandering through the gallery, glanced up, almost in passing, and had to stop. And eventually sit. And just stare, experience, and feel. Another artist whose work has had that same impact on me is Melanie Authier, a Canadian painter whose work hits my heart in the best ways for entirely different reasons. I can’t explain the feeling of being moved by a piece of art, but it’s like a story perfectly told that lives entirely in your perceptions and feelings. It’s magic. Seek it out—just wander, stay open, and see what hits you.
Thanks for reading and I’ll “see” you next week. Whatever the world may bring, there will always be important stories that need you to tell them. I’ll be here to help.
Also, if you’re enjoying this or if there’s something you’d like me to cover in a future letter—an element of your storytelling you may be struggling with, please let me know by leaving a comment below. I’m here to help.