2. Cultivating Empathy


Jen: Hi Peter.

Peter: Hey Jen.

Jen: You brought something up the other day that I've been noodling on.

Peter: What was it?

Jen: The practice of cultivating empathy. What is it? How do we do it? How do we get more of it?

Peter: I'd like to find out more. Let's unpack that. This is The Long and The Short Of It.

Jen: Okay, so Peter, this might be embarrassing for both of us to acknowledge, but we sometimes send each other messages right after we've gotten out of the shower, standing in a towel.

Peter: That's true.

Jen: It's shower-thoughts. So you and I both do some of our best thinking in the shower, and that might be something to dissect in a future episode; in any case, yesterday you sent me a shower-thought about the ways in which we can cultivate empathy, and I wanted to share with you some of the stuff that I have learned over the last fifteen-ish years in my work at the studio, and then I want to hear from you about the work that you are doing to cultivate empathy in your own circles.

Peter: I love this. Let's do it.

Jen: Okay, so, a little context for our listeners: I have a studio in New York City where I work with actors to help them bring out their best creative output, and I teach a class, which is the flagship class of the studio, called the studio workshop. And although the general content of the class changes every single week depending on who's in it, there is a sort of structure in place that enables people to do their best work, and the structure works like this: We start with a self-centering exercise - I'm on a mission to reclaim the concept of self-centered as a positive - so we do a self-centering exercise and takes three minutes, and then from that, we move into this exercise that we call the circle, which is: we literally stand in a circle, and then I will offer some sort of a prompt. Sometimes it's a creative prompt, sometimes it is a self-realization, personal development prompt, and then I ask each person, one at a time, to come into the center of the circle - and just remember this is a room full of actors, so they are really able to execute this - I asked them through abstract sound and movement to express any thoughts, feelings, or ideas that they are having in relation to the prompt. And for the people on the outside of the circle, their job is to reflect back exactly to the person in the center what they are receiving in terms of sound and movement and emotional state. So this is literally a mirroring exercise. There is no interpretation allowed. As a person on the outside of the circle, you are not allowed to have a response to the person in the center. Your role is to be a direct reflection of what is going on in their body, on their face, and through their voice. And so if someone gets to the center of the circle and starts crying, then everyone on the outside of the circle is crying with them. If someone comes to the center of the circle and starts laughing, everybody's laughing, or everybody's screaming, or everyone's stomping, or whatever is going on for that person in the center. And this, to me, is an empathy cultivation exercise, because you are reflecting back directly and not interpreting what you see. And as a result, the group of artists immediately form this really unbreakable bond, and they are able to do better creative work because of that experience.

Peter: That is amazing. And do you, like when you talk about it or introduce it, do you think of it as a "cultivating empathy exercise," or is that kind of a secondary intention?

Jen: For me, that is the primary intention, but when I explain it, I always explain it with the exact same words every single time, and the first time it's introduced - because it's something that we do every single week at the top of the class, but because my class schedule rotates every month, there are always new people joining the first week of the month, so I always have to do a more detailed explanation the first week - and the thing that I always share is that this is an opportunity to build your emotional repertoire as an artist. You can actually become a better actor by giving yourself permission to free yourself of the judgment of what someone is feeling and instead step fully into it. You can become a better actor when you have more of an emotional palette to work with. That's how I frame it for them.

Peter: Yeah. Nice. Wow. Because I was wondering if, as a participant, as an actor in that class, if they're consciously thinking, "Oh, this is an empathetic exercise," because I wonder if, you know, the example I sent you in the shower, which I can get to in a second, but it was almost that I never explicitly called it an empathetic exercise and I don't even think the people involved were thinking, "Oh, here we are cultivating empathy," but that it was a byproduct of doing what we did. And as a result, like you said, you build this strong between these group of people, potentially a group of strangers, because of the fact that they've empathized with each other, even though they didn't even realize that we're doing it.

Jen: I never really talk about cultivating empathy with them or the benefits of it. I just let it play out, and then their work is elevated as a result, and they're more willing to go to places that maybe they wouldn't otherwise go, whether those places are light or dark in front of each other because that empathy exercise really does create a very safe and very brave space.

Peter: And so when you think about cultivating empathy outside of that, outside of that exercise, what does it mean to you?

Jen: Well, I recognize that the best work happens when some degree of empathy is present, and sometimes, you know, depending on what the given set of circumstances might be, you know, the "empathy meter" may be experiencing a peak or a valley. Of course, the closer we get to a peak, the better our work can be because we are more willing to share it when we understand the people we're sharing it with.

Peter: And so this I guess leads to what I was thinking about and talking about in my shower thoughts yesterday, which was: in running a workshop, I did an exercise where we went around the room, and instead of, you know, doing the standard introduction exercise where you say, "I'm Peter, I'm from Melbourne, blah, blah blah," it was that, plus this question of what's holding you back. And slowly what started to come out was these ideas of basically stories that people were telling themselves about what's holding them back. And it was centered around, you know, I'm being held back because of what other people think of me, I'm being held back because I don't think I'm good enough, I'm being held back because, you know, any number of self-limiting story. And so it was about fifteenpeople that went around, and as the facilitator I was able to stand back and basically just observed that, fascinatingly, every single one of them, the thing that was holding them back was the story that they were telling themselves. And to me, as an observer, and someone who thinks about cultivating empathy and empathy quite a bit, it was like I didn't even deliberately set out to do that, to cultivate empathy. I was just intrigued that I thought maybe a few of them might have these limiting stories, but for all fifteen to have them was quite remarkable, and what it meant is even though they didn't realize it, they were starting to empathize with each other. They were starting to feel what it must be like to walk in the other person's shoes because of the fact that oldest stores were actually quite similar. They were unique to that individual, but really they were similar in that they were fear-driven really, and they were about stories that they told themselves about what other people think of them ultimately. So that was what I found just totally fascinating.

Jen: Okay, so I have a question for you around this based on my own hypothesis and the value of empathy. Was it your experience - or can you comment on your experience - about the ways in which the output from these individuals was made better or worse by that experience? So in other words, was their work improved because they had cultivated more empathy within themselves in the group?

Peter: Yeah, I'm obsessed with that question. I think definitely! It's hard when it was, so it was remote using Zoom, but it's hard to see the body language change other than just from the shoulders up, but it felt like a lot of them had a little weight lifted off their shoulders and that immediately they knew moving forward that the next hour and a half wasn't going to be a standard workshop where you have to wear a mask and pretend like you're someone that you're not. It wasn't a space where we were trying to impress one another with our achievements or what we've done in the past. It was immediately this - it felt like it was a mask being removed, I guess, and so people in that workshop were able to show up more fully, they were able to share more openly, and they were able to trust the process and trust each other in a more safe space. Does that - I think that makes sense.

Jen: It does, and what this is making me think about is that empathy is a practice, not a thing; that if empathy is something you can cultivate, you have to practice it, and some of the best practices of all different schools of thought and varieties live within a container. And perhaps the structure that you put in place of "answer this question and you have, you know, x amount of minutes" and the structures that I put in place, we're going to do this in the form of an exercise, because a lot of the mystery is taken away because you know what the container looks like - perhaps that makes it easier for people to practice empathy.

Peter: Yeah, and I think it's - I think there's something in this idea that I didn't sit down and say,"Okay everybody, we're going to cultivate empathy now," because -

Jen: - because they would go running in the other direction?

Peter: Basically, yeah, because everyone's like, "What? I don't want to cultivate empathy. I don't even know what that means. I'm running away." So it was - I feel like you have to do a by stealth, Jen, is what I'm thinking.

Jen: Mmmm! Tell me more about your stealthiness.

Peter: Well, I just made this up now, but I was thinking that empathy is really hard, and it is a practice like you said. It's not something that you master. It's not a hack or a skill or a practice that you just all of a sudden are pro at, right? Empathy - cultivating empathy is hard. It's hard to walk in someone else's shoes and you know, in many ways you can't actually ever be sure whether you are empathizing, you know, quote unquote "correctly," because unless you're literally able to put yourself in their shoes, it's difficult to not just base your empathy on assumptions and questions and thoughts, which means there's always some room for error. And so I think whether or not it's deliberate when when someone thinks about empathizing or thinks about empathy, it's tempting to a) run away because it's hard, or b) just sort of dismiss it and say, "Oh, yeah no, I get empathy. I have to see what other people see," you know? "And that's fine. I can do that." But really to really practice empathy, I think you have to - yeah - you have to go to an uncomfortable place in many ways. I think you have to go a bit deeper than just, "Oh, I get it, Jen's thinking this. Yeah, that's empathizing." And so, the concept that I came up with three minutes ago: what is this idea of doing it via stealth? Because my assertion is only by doing so will you then get people to go to that deeper place, that place where they are able to see other people, able to hear other people, because of this idea that I guess they've been vulnerable in the first place to get there. So it's almost like a shared empathy.

Jen: Ooh, I have so many things to say about this. First, I think many people have been shamed by the notion that there is some final destination where empathy resides, where it's like, be empathetic, and that you will somehow know if you've achieved that. And it seems to me that part of where the stealthiness comes in as a major contributor to progress in terms of cultivating empathy is that you take away the sort of finish line and release people from the shame that they're not doing it right. So yay to you for that, that's amazing. And then the other thing is that I really believe that pure empathy does not exist, and that might make people feel sad, but I'm going to say take it back as a power - as a powerful tool - to know that empathy is not a destination, but rather a pursuit: that we are always in pursuit of expanding our own concept of what it means to be empathetic. So if we can sort of release the notion that anyone out there in the world has ever achieved pure empathy and is doing it right, and instead accept that we're always learning, always growing, always pursuing new means of cultivating our own personal sense of empathy, then we're always doing it right.

Peter: And so, you know I have to ask you, what - or how - do you practice empathy? Or do you do them by stealth on yourself?

Jen: Oh, you're so stealthy and crafty, Peter Shepherd. Well, something that has become very clear to me in recent years is that I need to, what I call "build the empathy bridge," and part of what that means for me is always asking who has not yet had a seat at this table? Who has not yet had a voice in this conversation? Whose opinion or expertise has not yet been vetted? So I'm aware that I have a lot of blind spots, but I'm not aware of what the blind spots actually are, and so I try to get my information from a lot of different sources so that I make sure I'm keeping myself open to the things that I don't yet know. So that's one big part of it, and the other part for me has come from my role as an acting coach, and that is: if I confuse empathy and sympathy, the whole thing falls off track. So I've become extremely disciplined in taking an empathetic approach rather than a sympathetic approach, to the point where sometimes people observe me in my role as a coach and can comment on how cold I appear because someone might be, you know, heave-sobbing in front of me, and I am sitting there almost poker-faced. But this is really my attempt to understand where someone else is coming from, and if I bring my own bias, my own experience into that moment, then I'm not showing up fully for that other person. So what I've learned is when I start to have an emotional response to someone's work, I've stepped into sympathy and I - it's not that I don't believe in compassion and kindness and warmth and all of those things; they of course are vital to, you know, a fulfilled life - but in the moments where I'm asking someone to share with me their point of view, if any part of my self shows up in that conversation or in that work, we have failed to get to the thing that we're there for, which is for me to really understand where they're coming from so that I can help them make progress forward.

Peter: And so for me - not that you asked, but I'm going to tell you anyway - the day-to-day tactical way that I try and practice empathy in myself is through one of my favorite questions of all, and that is: Who's it for? In almost everything that I do - whether it's writing a proposal, writing an email, starting a new project, thinking about this podcast - I will write at the top of a page or the top of a whiteboard - which we can get to another time, my obsession with white-boarding - but I'll write, "Who's it for?" And what I'll proceed to do is basically just brainstorm who it is - this email, this project, this podcast, this proposal - who it's for. And not just who it's for, but the layer below that, like literally try and write as if I were that person for five minutes: What do I think about, what do I fear, how did I grow up, what books do I read, what podcasts do I listen to, what's my relationship with my parents? Like really go deep on who that particular person is that I'm seeking to target. So that's how I, I guess, a tactical way that I try and . practice it every day.

Jen: It sounds like we're both in agreement that the goal is not necessarily to define empathy and what the empathy finish line looks like, but instead to constantly be in pursuit of cultivating more and more and more empathy as there is no finish line.

Peter: I agree. I think, as you've said, empathy is a practice; there is no finish line. And that's The Long and The Short Of It.