On the front page of the New York Times last weekend, in case you missed it, was an interesting story written by Pam Belluck about one way to increase empathy — read a book.
The study she references, published by the journal Science, found that “after reading literary fiction…people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.”
Empathy in my experience working with leaders is one of those skills that is difficult to inculcate when not somehow already present, so this story got my attention. Empathy, in fact, is one of the hardest leadership skills to develop, according to much of the research. Moreover, when working with those from other cultures, empathy can replace premature judgment. Being culturally adept includes delaying one’s need to evaluate others too quickly, and instead fostering your curiosity in a new approach, and a focus on mutual gains.
There was significant comment about this story in its online version — everything from the kinds of literature that were discussed to the critiques of the quality of the study itself, but the importance of the topic is hopefully not lost. If lacking empathy is akin to difficulty in understanding someone, then one can see how literary fiction might help the reader take the time to understand the situation and nuances of another through character development and context. Reading a description of someone’s experience provides insight that allows us to connect to that experience personally.
Taking time to explore situations and nuances of a particular situation from a book is similar to what is necessary in our own lives. Taking the time to understand someone — put oneself in others’ shoes — often loses out to the more expedient judgmental conclusion.
I remember having a particularly difficult client whose approach was entirely opposite to mine. I was frustrated at my lack of understanding about how to work with him more effectively. Exasperated, I began a list of all the questions I had about his ethos — forcing myself to get curious — and ended up with 3 pages of unanswered questions. The exercise was the beginning of a better relationship and better business result.