As a writer, I’ve learned that empathy can not be faked. This is true both in writing and in any other form of communication. Let me explain.
Some time ago, I’ve started editing a memoir. I am not an editor. I am not a memoir writer. I don’t pretend to be one on the Internet. I am a non fiction writer specialized in business and self-improvement. Yet, as this is a person with which I’ve been working for a long time and he insisted, I’ve decided to give it a go.
At first I’ve read the memoir. I’ve treated it as non-fiction. I’ve spotted the errors and the breaks in the flow. I’ve focused on the technical part of writing the memoir. These were well received. Then I’ve actually started learning how to write one. I’ve had a two hour call with the writer. I’ve listened to the story on which the memoir was based. I’ve also visited my favorite online retailer, Amazon and bought two books on writing a memoir.
At some point, it hit me. You can not write a memoir without empathy. You need empathy and love for the reader. You need empathy for the people who were involved. You can’t present facts. A memoir isn’t an Wikipedia entry. You present a world. This world is not painted by events but by the significance of those events. A memoir becomes a story of transformation, of pain and pleasure, of sorrow and happiness. It is not a book on how to achieve something.
Instead, I’ve quickly realized that it is that time when you sit with a friend in a bar. You’re happy to see him. You have a beer in front of you. A blonde girl next to you, in her 20s is playing pool. Behind you, a couple is lost conversation. You focus back to your table and your friend is telling you a story.
It is not any story.
It is likely to be inaccurate. It is likely to have gaps. Memories are never identical to reality. They are better or worse but never the same. Yet, you are not in for the accuracy. You are in for the experience of listening to the story.
He tells you about times long forgotten that shaped him. You understand that it wasn’t easy for him. You see yourself in his story because we all follow a similar story. We all walk on wrong paths. We all dig our own holes and eventually, find a way to build castles out of the dirt we push out. The story may not always make sense nor it may play like a Hollywood script, but it is human.
That’s a memoir and that’s empathy.
In the past, I’ve tried to built empathy artificially. I would write an article or a short eBook and I would use a very enthusiastic language. I would hype it. I would compliment my reader. Make him feel good. Yet, I’m the first to admit it that it wasn’t empathy. It was a technique.
Now I do understand things differently.
If I write something, no matter if it is fiction or non fiction, I must learn to empathize first with the reader. I must see him as that friend in the bar. He is not some stranger I’ll never meet and which is represented only by a +1 in my Google Analytics dashboard. Instead, he’s a human being with a problem for which I have the solution.
It is not about the information anymore – no matter if it is how to sell more effectively or five steps to optimize your email open rate. It is about him. He’s trying to sail and he’s failing. He doesn’t know what he’s doing wrong. He felt like a failure all his life. Everyone told him that he’s going to suck at his new job. Now, he’s proving everyone right. He wants a better car and a better house but between where he is and where he should be in his mind, there’s a long way.
Empathy is when you tell someone “take my hand, let’s solve this”. It is when you write with the intent on making someone’s existence better through what you’re offering, offering wisdom or your own example in the process. It has nothing to do with the language you use. It has everything to do with the angle and approach you’re taking.
Sometimes I look at those around me and I treat them like empty shells, like they don’t exist as I do. Like they don’t have fear and pain and suffering. Like they don’t wake up in the morning and wish something was different … or look in the mirror and wished that they were fitter … or sit on their couch, starring at the wall, wishing someone would make them feel less alone.
Sometimes yes, I do see others as robots, no matter if I desire this or not. Maybe it is because we aren’t really taught to see things through other people’s eyes or maybe because Facebook and Twitter is reducing the complex process of human interaction to notifications and 240 character tweets.
That’s the moment in which empathy is important. It is about understanding that your version of human existence, with all the drama, all the quirks and the intrigue, is truly universal. You are not alone in this. You are not the only one to feel heartbreak or looniness or to crave. They do feel the same.
They here being your mother, father, sister, significant other, best friend, neighbor, aunt, doorman, Uber driver, ticket clerk, intersection policeman and that construction workman you pass every day without even wondering what his name.
Your story is similar to their story. Your story will play out in an unique way. Maybe you’ll be a millionaire. Maybe they won’t be. Maybe you’ll merry a supermodel and live in Monaco. Maybe she’ll not merry anyone and live with eight cats. But human experience is universal across the spectrum. One may feel happiness for getting a 20% raise at work. Another may feel joy for getting a $2.000.000 bonus check from his Wall Street trading firm. One may feel pain because losing his job. Another may feel pain because of losing his family.
It’s not about comparing. It’s not about saying which is better or worse or quantifying joy and suffering. It is about understanding that while your interpretation on this planet is unique and subjective, your experience is exactly the same as the other 7.500.000.000 people. And once you realize this, you also realize that having empathy is nothing more than recognizing that your feelings exists in others. Once you realize this, how can you not care about those around you?
Empathy is not a politically correct word. It is the key to making you a better writer, a better communicator, a better leader. It is the key to dealing with other people in harmony because it changes the dynamic between “us” versus “them” to just us. And while this doesn’t mean that empathy is a moral imperative, feeling love or at least acknowledgment of existence for those around you, no matter if you want to interact with them or not, no matter if you want to move a finger to make their life different or not is surely to help you.
At least, it is helping me.