I played in a lot of Battle of the Bands competitions when I was young. Between the ages of 12 and 16 they had become my exclusive experience of what it meant to play music in a band. It was all about fierce competition, between both bands AND fans alike.
…I say fans. In reality I mean parents (mine included), who would be spitting blood at the ‘injustice’ of their kids’ genius being outmuscled by the ‘horrible, out of tune noisy rabble’ that would inevitably win each time. That said, I was in such a rabble a couple of times.
It wasn’t a healthy introduction to art, to playing music in public and especially to interacting with local creative peers. It bred competition and unfair criticism at the expense of collaboration and a celebration of the art form.
It would breed an unhealthy criticism that sometimes led to cynicism about the other musicians. Clarity of judgement was clouded by rivalry and any appreciation of the good stuff other bands were doing was suppressed by the fact that we were supposed to be fighting for the objective title of ‘best band’, one of the most subjective and controversial accolades you can ever be given.
There is a fantastic talk by Roman Krznaric on the idea of ‘Outrospection’. He explains why we need to become more empathic both individually and collectively, if we’re going to acheive meaningful, positive, and progressive social transformation in the world.
To some extent this idea feels to me like common sense.
If we want any semblance of peace and unity in our world then we need to step outside of ourselves and understand the motives and background of other people. Especially those we might think of as our ‘enemy’.
Of course we all know that although it might appear in theory to be common ‘sense’, but it’s certainly not common experience. It’s a human paradox.
We don’t often see empathy taught or encouraged by mainstream media. A lot of political rhetoric subtly discourages it, and most of us choose to spend our time with like-minded people who will reinforce our view of the world.
I was really struck by what Krznaric says about who we seek to empathise with. If we want to be a part of a gentle revolution in human relationships then we must take empathy seriously. Empathy with ALL people. Including those who have power over us, or are in better social and economic situations than us.
It can be quite easy to slip into thinking that empathy happens with those who are in ‘lesser’ positions and places that don’t directly impact us; people we can feel sorry for.
But Krznaric says we must be audacious and ambitious in our desire to empathise with ALL people, including those we may consider our ‘enemy’ and people in positions of power over us.
Empathy is Not Being Soft
Empathy is not weakness. It’s not blindly accepting or justifying the behaviours of someone. It is the rejection of our ignorance, stepping vulnerably into the unknown to view the world from the perspective of another.
It is about taking a person for all that they are. Not just what we think/want/believe we see about them. It requires us to accept their humanity from the outset, not just the story we tell ourselves about them and ‘their kind’.
Can we Increase our Capacity for Empathy?
Our brains carry a natural empathic drive. As we observe people we naturally tune into their emotions, movements and motives. But we can forget how to empathise, and it is therefore something we may need to actively remember or choose to engage with.
Goodies vs Baddies
Despite what we would like to believe, the world is not black and white. It is jam packed with grey areas, and however hard it is to admit, none of us are in the right, doing good, or even ‘normal’ to some people. Grasping this makes it a lot easier to hold more lightly to those people who we might perceive as ‘bad’, ‘wrong’ or ‘strange’.
When we won Battle of the Bands do you think everyone agreed with the decision? I’d like to think so, but obviously the answer would be no because it is a completely opinion-based, subjective decision.
Quiet Your Mind
In carving time and space in your noisy brain you can open yourself up to truly listen to your quiet empathic inner voice. Practice simply observing other people without casting any judgement on them.
Engage with Fictional Characters
Do so with the intention of becoming immersed in the characters. Delve into their backgrounds and make the connections between their story and the choices they make. Ask yourself why you think they decided to do what they did.
Do the Same For Yourself
What are you feeling? When you come to make decisions consider your emotions and the reasons for why you choose one thing over another. What is motivating you?
We all mirror the moods and emotions of other people. In looking within and seeing how you are feeling or reacting to a situation you may well find clues to the emotional state of the people you are with.
Test this Intuition
Address what you are sensing if it’s appropriate to do so. Ask the other person if they relate to the emotions that you are experiencing.
Bear in mind that it might be difficult for both of you to express how you’re feeling through language, so be patient. This is a good way to test and grow your empathic instinct.
Share Your Empathy
Sometimes it is necessary to break negative and judgemental cycles of conversation. Again, if it feels safe and appropriate be open with your empathic reflections about things, situations, and people about which the conversation is addressing.
It might feel to others like you’re ‘taking their side’, but if you can gently point things in a more positive direction you can help others remember, and hopefully engage their empathic instinct on some level.
Over to You
Question: Do you find it easy and natural to empathise with people? Are there any techniques or thought processes that you find useful in remembering to do it? Please leave your answer/thoughts in the comment section below. I want to learn!