Empathy and Creativity

Empathy links - Resources and conversations

Have you ever had that experience that once you start thinking about something, you suddenly notice examples of it everywhere?  Before I was pregnant, mums and babies were rarely on my radar.  Once I knew I was expecting, though, bumps and buggies were popping up all over the place. It seems to be happening again, as I make final preparations for my workshop next week, with articles and ideas on empathy.  I have a few resources I'd like to share with you to think about empathy, creativity, and how the two are related.

1. Realizing Empathy - A six-minute video by Seung Chan Lim, a computer scientist and designer whose work on empathy and creativity has galvanized a vibrant discussion world-wide.

2. Empathy, a Handbook for Revolution - The book and website of philosopher and writer, Roman Krznaric, who believes that empathic actions can be a powerful tool for social change.  I have now finished the book, and will reread.  While I don't agree with everything he says, I did find it a worthwhile read.

3. The Living Impulse - In addition to my workshop, there are several other events occurring during Lynne Cameron's exhibition, including a conversation on Wed 11 June between Jo Berry, whose father was killed in the 1984 Brighton bombing, and Patrick Magee, the former IRA member who planted the bomb.

4. What is it like to live with parents very different from you? - An article in this weekend's Guardian magazine that interviews five families where the children and parents are very different.  I found this article especially poignant, as I believe family relationships can be one of the most complex areas to practice empathy.

5. Sidling up to difference, an interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah - Although not explicitly about empathy, this interview by Krista Tippett suggests some beautiful ways of learning to live with difference and making the 'other' not an abstract threat, but a named friend or neighbor.

Over the past few months as I have been working towards this workshop, I have learned much.  There is a wealth of conversation occuring in the world about empathy, creativity, and their combined potentials.  I am so looking forward to the workshop next week to learn even more.  A few spots remain, so if you're interested, more information and registration here.

Dyspathy, curiosity, and Pandora's Box

What is the opposite of empathy? At first, I thought of apathy, simply not caring. However, Lynne Cameron’s research introduced me to the concept of dyspathy. She notes that ‘dyspathy is anything that stops empathy.’ I find this a more vivid contrast than apathy.   It brings to mind two things: First, that empathy has motion. I imagine empathy as a flowing current between people, like a river, whose path is to connect pools of common humanity.   Second, that dyspathy is an obstacle in the path of this river. It takes energy to block empathy, to obstruct one’s response to another. From their research*, Lynne Cameron and Simon Weatherbed note three kinds of dyspathy:

  • Blocking – People find a reason that prohibits empathy with the other.
  • Distancing – The other is seen as too different, far away, or extreme for empathy to happen.
  • Lumping – ‘They are all the same.’ A whole group of people is lumped together and individual differences are not seen. Empathy becomes impossible.

Similarly, in his book, Empathy (which I am reading and recommend), Roman Krznaric discusses four barriers to empathy: prejudice, authority, distance, and denial. Other obstacles could include being too close to a situation, feeling threatened by change, experiencing a loss of memory or a mental or physical illness, becoming drained of one’s own resources.   What blocks empathy for you?

Among the many ways the dyspathy can arise, I notice a common thread - dyspathy is frequently connected to fear. If I block my own empathic response to another, it’s often because I am afraid.

Fear of making a mistake, saying the wrong thing, doing something that could be embarrassing, humiliating, or even harmful. Fear of retribution or consequences. Fear of being taken advantage of, or of becoming too involved. Fear of stirring up something painful. Fear of losing something. Sometimes these fears are valid, sometimes not. But fears also hold us back, freeze us into stasis. Fed by fear, actions that feel dangerous or daring or even just a little uncomfortable can be deemed not worth the risk.

When faced with a situation where I could be empathic or dyspathic, I am reminded of the story of Pandora’s box**. What might fly out if I dare to make a connection? Curiosity gets a bad rap in folk tales: curiosity and cats, Bluebeard’s wives, Eve and the apple, and of course, Pandora. But I see curiosity as an antidote to fear (thanks to Marianne Elliott and Tara Mohr for sparking my thinking on curiosity). Asking questions out of wonder, not worry, can propel us gently forward on streams of empathy: What would it be like to be the other person? Has anything like that ever happened to me? What would happen if I tried to reach out in a way I never have, to someone new or someone known? What would happen if I listened for what I might share with another instead of tripping over a subtext that separates us?   What if we looked at old stories through new lenses?

For example, take Pandora and her box. While the box was closed, it was not as if there were no evils in the world, it was just that they were all in a tight, confined space, under a lot of pressure, mixing and churning. Sooner or later, that top was going to blow anyway. I am drawn to the moment just after Pandora opens the box. Once open, she could have run away from the evil spirits that poured out. She could have abandoned the scene. But she didn’t. She stayed. Initially, curiosity nudged her to open the box. But I’d like to think that it was empathy that kept her at its side to witness the emergence of Hope.

*From Empathy Dynamics in Conflict Transformation, A Manual, by Lynne Cameron and Simon Weatherbed.
** As with any myth, there are many versions of the story of Pandora’s box. Depending on the teller, the time, and the reasons for remembering the story, the emphasis changes.  Of the different versions I could find available online, I like this one: Pandora’s Box.

Next on my mind: finding opportunities to grow and nourish empathy.

Registration for my workshop on Empathy and Creativity is still open.  Click here for details.  It would be lovely to see you there .

Empathy and Sympathy

As  I mentioned in my last post, I thought it could be helpful to define empathy and sympathy, as the two are often contrasted. On my way to the dictionary, I passed my 10-year old son.  I decided to ask him what he knew about empathy and sympathy. ‘Oh!  I know – we were just talking about this at school. Let’s see, sympathy is if, umm... something bad happens to someone and you feel bad about it.  And the other one is if you do something about it.’

‘Is the other one empathy?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, that’s it.  Empathy is if something bad happens to someone and you do something about it.’

‘What if something good happens to someone and you celebrate with them?  Can that be empathy?’

‘I don’t know.  Maybe. Yeah, I guess so.  Yes, that counts too.’

I’m not sure this is how I would have drawn a contrast between empathy and sympathy, but it provided an interesting starting point.  I was heartened by my son’s response (he must have a good teacher!) and also liked that he was willing to extend his idea empathy to embrace positive events as well.

I then looked at definitions of empathy set out by the artist and applied linguist Lynne Cameron in her research on empathy dynamics, and Roman Krznaric, the writer and philosopher who recently published Empathy, A Handbook for Revolution.

Here is what I found:

Lynne Cameron defines empathy as ‘one person understanding how it feels to be another person.’  She continues, ‘Empathy is action.  Empathy is something we DO, not something we have.’

Roman Krznaric offers this definition: ‘Empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.’ (italics mine)

All three of my sources (my son, Lynne, and Roman) promote the idea that empathy involves action.

If action as opposed to non-action is one of the key differences between empathy vs. sympathy, what other contrasts then follow?  Some interesting contrasts popped up as I thought about this:



Passive Active
Distance Involvement
Commentary Response
Low stakes Risks and rewards of engagement
Safe Vulnerable

Sympathy feels like watching a TV sitcom with only half my attention.  I can turn it off, I can walk away.  I have invested very little.  I see the characters, but they don’t see me.  There is a flatness to sympathy.

An example of sympathy as a learned social grace could be the Barbie at the end of Toy Story 2.  As she does her duty and wishes everyone a good day, she has a painful grimace on her face.  Once she thinks everyone has left the theatre, she drops her smile, relieved to be free of her role.   At this extreme, sympathy veers into insincerity.  A sympathetic gesture can be kind, soothing, even helpful, but a distance remains between the people involved.  Sympathy is not a bad or false emotion, but I wonder if it stays safely on the surface.

Sometimes, sympathy is marked with an undercurrent of relief that says ‘I’m glad that’s not me.’  On the other hand, empathy recognizes that ‘fundamentally, I am no different from this person.’  We wear different clothes, eat different foods, speak different languages, have different amounts of money, true, but the core emotions that connect us – fear, joy, uncertainty, elation, shame, desire –these are the same.

Empathy feels like a powerful equation or potent chemical in the repertoire of human interaction.   It is a tool of engagement.  And as with other tools, such as imagination or intellect, it takes time and practice to wield it with skill.

During my first years in the classroom, I believe empathy was my strength as well as my weakness.  While I could connect with my students, I could also become too wrapped up in the whirlpools of someone else’s confusion, too easily tossed by another’s tempest.  Perhaps this was empathy untamed, unaware.   I often think that effective social workers, medical professionals, clergy, teachers, counsellors, and others in the helping professions must spend years learning the language of empathy and becoming skilled at remaining separate from but present for another.

I wonder if one part of empathy comes from witnessing another’s story to recognize shared experiences or emotions.  And then another, equally important, part is leaning forward to hear the details of difference that make each person’s experience unique.

Perhaps empathy requires listening until the whole story has been told, the speaker’s perspective has been drawn.  We might ask questions fuelled by curiosity:  Is there anything to add?  Are there colours in the background that shade the meaning?  Are there layers to uncover?  After as much of a picture has been created as the person wants or is able to tell, an empathic response might be to sit back and observe the whole.  Pause. With a bit of time and patience, an idea may arise.  Empathy involves action, yes, but it needs to be a considered response instead of a rush to fixes, stock advice, or band-aids.

If we were to respond to every piece of news and every interaction with complete empathy, what would happen?  Would we find ourselves without boundaries, drowning in every passerby’s sorrows, buoyed by every stranger’s joys? Would we approach enlightenment? Or madness?

I don’t know.  But I feel that to engage at this level of empathy in every instance would be draining.  Instead, we can practice in small steps, choosing empathy when seeing a friend, or during a difficult conversation, or when helping a child.  We can build our empathy muscles interaction by interaction, growing in both strength and fluency with time.  As we grow stronger, we can reach further.

Empathy is an art we can spend a lifetime practicing.


Next time: What prevents empathy?  What is the opposite of empathy?  Why does empathy get blocked?

Registration continues for the workshop on Empathy and Creativity on 6 June at 5th Base Gallery, just of Brick Lane in London.   I'd be so pleased to welcome you there!   Click here to go to the registration page.

Also, the exhibition, The Living Impulse, that has inspired these posts and the writing workshop will be open to the public from 14.00-20.00,  6 -11 June, and from 17.00-21.00 on 5 June.  There are many other events occurring, and it's a wonderful chance to meet Lynne Cameron.

Empathy Thoughts - Finding an entry, imagining a space

It is very possible that I am making this too difficult. I had an idea of writing a few blog posts about empathy, leading up to the workshop in June. It seemed like a good idea, since I had brainstormed so many different directions I could take in the workshop and had to narrow it down to a few for the day. But what to do with all the other material? Why not create blog posts?

So I thought to myself, ‘definitions are a good place to start.’ And I began looking up empathy, sympathy, apathy. I read a lot. Too much. I got confused and overwhelmed. I felt myself drowning in the wave of many other voices explaining my thoughts to me. An afternoon was spent drawn into fascinating articles and links. The impostor syndrome started creeping into the back of my mind: ‘What are you doing? There are people who are experts in this area. Experts. They know things. They’ve researched and written and proved. What on earth could you add to the mix?’

I was tempted to create a blog post filled with links to other people’s words on empathy, YouTube clips of brilliant animations and talks, funny interviews, compelling articles. It would be relatively easy, and it would look slick. It would prove I had done my homework; I had done my research into what other people think.

But that was never the point.

What I wanted was to take the time and space here to work out what I think about empathy. To invite you to share what you think. Perhaps start a conversation.

On the empathy blog, Lynne Cameron talks about entry points for empathy. I like the idea of needing to find an entry point. Entry points could be a bit of common ground, a shared experience, a similar point of view. What are your entry ways into empathy?

To push the metaphor further, what happens once we go through an entry point? When I think of entry, I think of entering into a space. What does that space look like? What would it mean for someone to offer you an empathic space in which you can attempt to see, to witness one another?

I imagine an empathic space as a very clear, very open room. It is full of possibility and free of clutter. Opinions and verdicts may bang at the door, but I make them wait outside. What I want in an empathic space is neutral territory. Blank walls, on which we can project dreams and demons, clean canvases ready to catch stories launched with paint, empty pages waiting to be filled with ink, open areas in which we dance, stretch or lie down. It is a space in which we mix experience and memory towards an alchemy of connection. And what I want from an empathic listener is to be seen without being judged or fixed. I want someone who is there and says ‘I see you. I hear you. I am listening. I am open.’  I would try my best to offer the same.

When we leave an empathic space, what is left behind? What do we carry away with us?

Perhaps we leave behind the muddle of words and images and movements and thoughts. We leave behind the rough draft of understanding that we had to put forward to begin approaching clarity.

Perhaps we carry away the seeds of progress. A profound sense of connection, despite surface differences. A sense of awe, of humility, of faith.

In my next post, maybe I’ll get back to some of those definitions: empathy, sympathy, apathy. The great research is out there – just google ‘empathy and sympathy’ or ‘empathy’ and you’ll find a treasure trove. But before consulting the experts, I challenge you to articulate a few ideas of your own on empathy. I’m convinced this makes conversations richer and more resonant.

Writing workshop registration open!

“Go back to your room now”, detail. Acrylic on paper, 25 x 35 cm © Lynne Cameron, 2014
“Go back to your room now”, detail. Acrylic on paper, 25 x 35 cm © Lynne Cameron, 2014

“Go back to your room now”, detail. Acrylic on paper, 25 x 35 cm, © Lynne Cameron, 2014

I'm pleased to announce that registration is now open for my creative writing workshop, Empathy and creativity: a multi-faceted relationship.

This workshop will explore facets of empathy by engaging with the exhibition, The Living Impulse.   Artist Lynne Cameron’s paintings are a response to her academic research into empathy, uncertainty and conflict.  Through varied activities, participants will uncover connections between creativity and empathy.   The session will conclude with an informal sharing of work or ideas that have emerged.  Limited to 12 participants, ages 18+.

Time and date: 11.00 – 14.00, Friday 6 June 2014.  There will be a short break for lunch.

Location:5th Base Gallery, 23 Heneage Street, London E1 5LJ, just off Brick Lane.

Open to:  Writers, artists, educators, anyone with an interest in empathy and creativity.

Fee:  £15 /£10 (seniors, students, educators)*.  All proceeds after costs to go to Building Bridges for Peace , a non-profit organisation promoting peace and conflict-resolution throughout the world.

*Bursaries are available if experiencing financial hardship.  Make requests in your registration email.

To register or ask for more information, just fill out the form below and I'll be in touch with you soon.

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