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Creativity, imagination and empathy

Lynne Baab • Friday July 31 2020

Creativity, imagination and empathy

I have long believed that imagination is required for empathy. In order to enter into another person’s feelings and thoughts about their life, I have to be able to imagine someone else’s reality. Here’s the definition of empathy, from a communications textbook, that I use when I’m teaching listening skills:

“Empathy is the cognitive process of identifying with or vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. . . .When we empathize, we are attempting to understand and/or experience what another person understands and/or experiences.” [1]

Notice the verbs in that definition: identifying with, vicariously experiencing, understand, experience. Imagination plays a key role in making those actions happen.

The place where I put three dots in the quotation above had this sentence: “Scholars recognize that empathy is an important element in understanding and maintaining good interpersonal relationships.” I certainly find that my most satisfying relationships involve people who convey empathy frequently.

In my last few posts, I’ve been quoting from Cheryl Forbes’ book Imagination: Embracing a Theology of Wonder. When she talks about the way Jesus uses his imagination in relationships, she writes:

“Today we might say that his empathetic powers were highly developed. They were. But we can’t have empathy for another person unless we have an imagination willing and able to forget self and think about someone else. An empathetic person must encourage others in image making; he must help develop the rose or the elm that another person can become.” [2]

I love two aspects of Forbes’s words: her stress on the necessity of imagination so we can think about others, and her perception that empathetic people encourage others to use their imagination to see their own lives and who they are becoming. I often think of empathy purely as a form of reflecting back to others what I am hearing and perceiving from them, and when someone serves and loves me in that way, I experience many benefits. I feel heard. I feel valuable. Often I am able to find my own solutions to problems. Sometimes I am able to see myself as a rose or elm or something else beautiful simply because being listened to well conveys such love and acceptance.

I have never before considered Forbes’ idea that a component of empathy might involve encouraging the other person to see their own lives imaginatively. Here are some thoughts about how that might happen:

1. Sometimes simply engaging empathetically, reflecting back what we see and hear, helps the other person see herself or himself in a new way. Our comments about the wisdom, kindness, competence or other attributes we see in them helps our friends and family members see strengths in themselves that they normally ignore.

2. Sometimes when we listen empathetically, we notice how hard the other person’s situation is, and we let them know that we perceive the difficulty. Many people feel like something is wrong with them when they are struggling, and a listener can help validate that anyone would find that kind of situation very challenging. This helps people feel validated and accepted, which can free them to imagine new and creative ways to view their situation.

3. Here’s the new idea that comes from the Judith Forbes’s quotation for me. I wonder if sometimes when I’m listening empathetically, it might be appropriate to respond more imaginatively than normal. “Your kindness to your brother reminds me of a big teddy bear.” “When your boss tried to push you around, you stood firm like a tall oak tree.”

4. In order to come up with an imaginative picture that might be helpful to someone we’re talking with, we need God’s help so that the picture will be as appropriate as possible. In my book on listening, I wrote about “triple listening,” where we try to be aware of what the other person is saying, what is happening inside of us as we listen, and what guidance God is giving to us. Clearly, God's help and wisdom is invaluable when we want to come up with word pictures for others.

5. A key principle of all reflective, empathetic listening is the willingness to let the speaker correct us. Sometimes that correction reflects their own insecurities: “My perception of what happened when my boss tried to push me around is that I functioned like a wet noodle.” In that instance, we might point out the ways that we saw our friend’s behavior as oak-like.  Other times, however, we need to let the other person define the situation: “I don’t want to be a teddy bear with my brother. I want to be kind but firm, and I don’t think teddy bears are very firm.” As a listener at that moment, we need to affirm the other person’s perception and goals.

We can ask God to help us grow in using our imagination to enter into others’ reality and bring creativity to our relationships.

(Next week: more about Jesus, creativity, imagination, and relationships. Illustration by Dave Baab: a conversation in Union Station, Seattle, before the pandemic. I love getting new subscribers. Sign up below to get an email when I post on this blog.)

Two articles about how to get past “inner noise” so we can be more empathetic listeners:

[1] Kathleen S. Verderber and Rudolph F. Verderber, Inter-Act: Interpersonal Communication Concepts, Skills and Contexts, 10th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 211.
[2] Cheryl Forbes, Imagination: Embracing a Theology of Wonder (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1986), 61.

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