An Empathy/Creativity Mashup

essential leadership skills maximize your wiring Oct 31, 2018

“True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”  – David Foster Wallace

Empathy and creativity keep coming up in conversation – certainly while following current events in the news, and also around the “water cooler” at Elements.

Jami kicked off my recent obsession with the concept of empathy when she shared the Harvard Business Review article, “Empathy is Still Lacking in the Leaders Who Need It Most.” Ernest J Wilson summarizes his 3-year study that identified “five critical attributes executives must have to succeed in today’s digital, global economy.” They are:

  • Adaptability
  • Cultural competence
  • 360-degree thinking
  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Empathy

Wilson’s research shows that empathy is by far the most desirable of the five “Third Space attributes.”  Slack, Teams, and Instagram mean there is rarely such a thing as passive audience, customer, employee or team-member).  With today’s technology centered communications, we have to work even harder to “be sincerely interested in understanding other cultural preferences and choices.” We haven’t quite yet evolved to adapt to picking up social cues when not face-to-face.

Adaptability and cultural competence take lots of effort and practice. A better start might be empathy - the foundation the attributes above.  When we practice true empathy, it helps us learn many, many things along with developing those other attributes.

Creating Empathy

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not - and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation - in its’ arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” ― J.K. Rowling

In my first gig exploring culture and leadership programs, we developed a number of programs using creativity as a way to explore and practice what we teach. Jazz musician Dan Rubright sill runs a fantastic leader workshop, about tuning into how we listen to the world around us, plus a little jazz music theory, can teach us about leadership and team dynamics.

I think we are at the beginning of “creative empathy” movement where art and communication combine to help build empathy skills.   The philosopher Roman Krznaric calls it the art of “outrospection.”  But, I really love the way Matt D’Arrigo, a national leader in the creative youth development movement, mashed up the power of empathy, music, and art in a recent talk to a Creative Mornings group in San Diego.

Matt’s message goes something like this:  Empathy is fundamental for authentic, positive relationship. Empathy allows us to learn – from, people, from experience, from disappointment, and from joy. Storytelling  – especially (in his case) music, art – are the most powerful ways to truly learn and feel what other people are feeling.

You have to learn a lot about yourself to practice empathy.  You have to be able to relate your story and relate to other people’s stories.  That involves listening, vulnerability, understanding and emotion.  Music, art and writing can help make the conversations more relatable and accessible for people who see the world very differently.

We need to learn a lot – about ourselves and others – to practice empathy. That involves listening, vulnerability, understanding and emotion. Music, art and writing can help make the conversations more relatable and accessible for people who see the world very differently. 

"When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That's one of the great feelings - to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue." Brian Eno



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