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Empathy: Essential for Writing… and Life

My professional writing skills students had to pretend to be a swim club manager who was writing a “bad news” letter to a long time member. The recently widowed member was distraught over the loss (probably theft) of her diamond engagement ring while she was swimming. She wanted the club to reimburse her, even though the contract she’d signed made it clear the club was not responsible for the theft or loss of any personal items (thus, the “bad news”).

I asked my students to start their letters with what’s called a “nod”—a statement that both the writer and recipient are likely to agree with that will build rapport.

Many students did fine on this. They talked about how upsetting it is to lose something of great sentimental and financial value.  I felt they were able to put themselves in the member’s shoes and imagine what she must be going through. They intuitively understood she needed to have her feelings acknowledged.  

Others, however, started their letters with statements such as how healthy and beneficial swimming was as exercise. Under other circumstances, this might well be something the widow would agree with. But after someone had most likely snatched her treasured ring shortly after she’d lost her spouse? I don’t think so.

I’m not suggesting these students, who are lovely people, lack empathy. They’re in a hurry to get this assignment done, probably late at night after a long shift at work. I asked them to start with a statement that someone who’d been swimming for exercise for years at a club might agree with, and they did. But for the circumstances, this was not helpful—and most likely would have irritated the hell out of this long time member.

We talked about this at some length in class. I felt it was a valuable lesson for their professional futures. It was essential to listen carefully and seek to understand what their customers or clients might be experiencing and feeling. Otherwise, they risked “tone deaf” responses and the loss of someone’s good will, not to mention business.

As fiction writers, it’s also vital for us to hone our capacity for empathy, both for our “good guys” and “bad guys.” We have to imagine what our characters must be thinking and feeling at any given moment, keeping in mind that their responses are inextricably linked to their back stories. Our personal histories leave us with strengths, as well as flaws and fears and foibles. We are all wounded in some way.

But of course, this empathy thing doesn’t just matter in our professional lives or fiction writing. It matters in our personal lives as well. We all need to feel heard, and when we genuinely seek to understand our loved ones, we give them a priceless gift.

Beyond the personal and professional is our society at large. Imagine what our world would be like if we honed our capacity for empathy, not just for those “like us” but for people of different faiths, political views, income levels and skin colors.

It wouldn’t solve everything, but a heavy dose of empathy, especially in our politics, could go a long way toward building a better life… for everyone.

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