Between the Lines

Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place. — Daniel H. Pink

Kathy Steffen

Empathy is so important in this time of unbending opinions, intolerance and vehement judgment. Reading fiction and non-fiction puts you in someone else’s shoes — but what about taking the plunge and writing from another’s perspective? Feeling with his or her heart? Seeing the world through his or her eyes? Not only will you build your understanding and empathy, but experiencing the world from another perspective will strengthen your listening and writing skills. Not to mention expanding your understanding of people and the world.
Sound scary to step out of your comfort zone? It is! Difficult, too, yet rewarding to experience humanity so fully and completely. Don’t know how or where to start? Here are exercises to get you started. No one else has to read what you write, and maybe it will turn into something that pulls on you to continue writing and exploring.

  1. Choose a character in history. Choose a big moment and write from their perspective. Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address. The pilot flying the Enola Gay to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Shakespeare leaving his family to pursue a career in London as an actor and writer. Bill Gates making the decision to save Apple from bankruptcy. Mary Shelley waking from a dream and writing “Frankenstein.” Ask them the big questions: How did you get here? What is at stake for you? How do you feel about what you are about to do or what will happen? Why are you doing this? What do you hope to gain? What is your hope for the outcome? What if that doesn’t happen? What can go wrong? What frightens you about this? Why?
  2. Make a list of issues that you feel strongly about. Choose the one you feel the most passionate over and take the opposite point of view. Yep, you heard me, choose the one where you can’t imagine understanding the other side. Visualize the person who might have the opposite outlook and ask these questions of them: Why do you believe this? Why do you feel so strongly about this? What happened to make you feel this way? Did something happen in your childhood to make you believe this? Something recent? Tell me about it. What about this frightens you? Why is this so important to you?
    For both exercises step into the other person and answer in the voice of your opposite point of view character. Write in first person (the “I” point of view). In other words, become that person. Get behind their eyes, step into their shoes, become the “other” and see the world the way they do. Then write.
    Congratulations. You have just experienced complete empathy and taken a step toward making the world a better place. And probably learned a lot about yourself and humanity in the process.

Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the “Spirit of the River Series:” “First, There is a River,” “Jasper Mountain,” and “Theater of Illusion.” She writes from her home in Spring Green she shares with her husband and cats. Find out more at www.kathysteffen.com.