Early Reflections

Early Reflections on our Cultural Value project by Dr Ann O’Sullivan, Postdoctoral Researcher

What is compassion? What is empathy? What is under-standing? When I was eighteen I went for an interview to become a nurse because as I stated ‘I want to help people’. Does this make me compassionate? When I watch wildlife programmes on the television if there is any indication that an animal is about to be hurt I have to turn it off immediately. Does this make me compassionate? If my sister is hurting then I am hurting, is this empathy? If my partner is sad then I am sad, is this empathy? As a student counsellor I was trained in active listening techniques in an effort to be empathic of my clients’ situation. I would listen to their stories and try to ‘stand in their shoes’ but with no prior relationship it was very difficult to say I was empathic. It seems that what comes with ease with close family and friends takes much more effort with those at a distance. I struggled with empathy in my counselling practice, it just never came naturally. With intimates, one has the relationship on which to build a bridge of empathy; with clients, one has the narrative, the story that they tell of the self. There are certain fields of counselling such as narrative therapy that suggest that empathy is not something that one has for a client but something that one co-constructs with the client. The language space between the client and the counsellor is the space in which empathy must be constructed through the telling of a particular type of narrative, usually a problem narrative.

I am interested in the Lidice project because of the focus on empathy and compassion alongside an interest in narrative. There are so many ways to look at narratives from a completely structural point of view in that they have a beginning, middle and an end, to an interest in what the narrative conveys i.e. it content. The interest in the narrative for its content is the basis of a lot of qualitative research whereby we accept at face value that the content of the narrative is representative of some external reality. I am much more interested in what narratives do or the function of a particular narrative. Why this particular narrative at this particular time in this particular context. Everyone who enters the door of a therapist’s office does so knowing that they are going to tell a particular kind of story, a problem saturated story. Everyone who enters a doctor’s office will tell a particular kind of story usually an illness narrative or a narrative put together of clues to indicate a particular illness. Go to an AA meeting and they will have their own genre of narratives to tell. But above all my interest is the way in which narratives are strategically put together to construct a particular type of self.

I begin to wonder if particular types of narrative elicit empathy or compassion more than other types. The problem saturated narrative may elicit compassion the rising above adversity narrative may elicit empathy. The dominant narratives of our own lives may make us particularly susceptible to the same narratives told to us as the audience, just as we are drawn to particular genres of film or literature.

A busy week on our Cultural Value project

After two months of interviews and focus groups, involving academics and artists/creative practitioners, last week saw the first of our working group meetings. A number of artists and academics have agreed to work with the project team to develop new resources for the design and evaluation of arts projects and museum exhibitions in ways that better recognises and demonstrates their value in terms of empathy, compassion and understanding.

The artists included a community artist/photographer; a writer/playwright; a public artist and an arts charity co-ordinator. The project team who were there at the workshop included Jackie, Janet, Ann, John, and Kimberley. At the start of the workshop, we shared some interesting quotes from the focus groups and the interviews. We asked people to choose quotes that resonated with them or particularly interested them. This led to interesting discussions about the barriers to empathy, ’empathy fatigue’, and ways that people have engaged with empathy with museum displays. One of the quotes in particular highlighted the way in which focusing on individual stories and the common everyday of experiences of people (regardless of their differences), can have the greatest impact:

…when you go in there, there is twelve artefacts in glass cabinets around the outside and it’s not your traditional sort of storytelling museum. It just said the person’s name, their age, the fact that they were married or whether they had children and then it told an anecdote about their last days and so the one that absolutely and completely got me was it said underneath one that this guy was talking to his son and he just wanted the war to be over so he could go home and have chicken and chips for his tea. And that kind of just kicks you in the chest and I think that for me is the most powerful museum exhibition I have ever seen… And I think as well if hadn’t have known where I was in the world that could have been anybody from any nationality or any religion. It didn’t force you to have those kind of stereotypes or think that happened somewhere else. It actually made you realise that is was just a normal person with a family so I think that was why it was so powerful really.

Lecturer and Research Lead: Holocaust Archaeology

Ann then gave a 20 minute presentation about the emerging research findings. We want the new tools and approaches to be informed by the research, and so an important part of  the workshops is sharing and discussing the findings. Various evaluation techniques linked to empathy and compassion (quantitative and qualitative) have been mentioned by participants and some of these were also shared and discussed. We had an interesting discussion about whether it might be possible to adapt some of the measurement tools that are used in the field of health to apply them to arts projects. There is a certain resistance to doing this, which is not surprising given the context of the work, particularly with the focus on storytelling, which would strongly suggest qualitative approaches. One of the participants had been involved an arts project about Stoke-on-Trent and Lidice, which prompted unsolicited submissions of poetry from audiences about their response to the story. The idea of people adding their own new stories in response to an arts project is clearly hugely valuable and appealing.  However, at this stage we’re considering a wide variety of approaches to evaluation, and are ruling nothing out.

A point that has been strongly made throughout the project is that of the value of artists actually setting aside time to discuss and reflect upon important issues that impact on their practice (like empathy and compassion). It was noted that this could be done both in an online setting and face to face (with cake – an essential part of our meetings!). Such opportunities for interaction could certainly be part of an on-going strategy to explore the value of arts and culture in relation to empathy, compassion and understanding.

Jackie Reynolds

Guest Blog Post by Garry Abbott



By Garry Abbott

If there is one thing I have learned in the past two years of studying philosophy, it is that the meanings we take words to have are often contestable with even the slightest of scrutiny. I was recently invited to take part in a discourse about ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’ and this learning held true once again.

When I say ‘contestable’, I mean in a specific sense. Broadly, we can look at definitions of these words and  come to a mutual, universal consensus, and that is what we basically do in everyday language and communication (otherwise we wouldn’t get through a sentence!). But when asked to consider these terms, we soon realise how nuanced, and sometimes divergent individual interpretations can be. Empathy, for example, can be defined in the following terms:

                “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”(“empathy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 26 March 2014.)

This seems a good place to start, however, what the OED description lacks is any subjective account of what the word means. It tells us nothing of ‘how’ we empathise (nor is it intended to), but by striving to objectively define the term, it does offer us some initial insight.

There is a more commonly used, metaphorical description that I’m sure you’ve all heard before: ‘Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’.

We often find the use of metaphors in language to describe abstract concepts, perhaps because they tend to offer us a richer, novel, yet accessible way to explore an idea in terms we are more familiar with.  Just the simple idea of ‘walking’ the life of another conjures up sights, sounds, interactions and experiences – the imagination, consideration and appreciation of what it might be like to be somebody else.

But notice that in both the dictionary and folk definition of this term, no ‘normative’ description if offered, i.e. it makes no qualitative assessment of the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the act of empathising: its positive or negative virtues.

In considering this, I am led to thinking that empathy is in its nature a passive, innate ability within us. In my recent discussion I found myself saying  something along the lines of: “empathy just happens to me – I don’t choose it – but it does moderate how I then act”.

As a writer I often try (and actively seek out) the opportunity to empathise with characters and real world ‘like’ examples who I don’t agree with, or have little in common with. This is to help me try and understand their motivations, intentions and world view. Notice how the word ‘understand’ begins to creep in at this point. Of course, we can never fully understand anyone else’s states of mind, but empathy is the best tool we’ve got, and it is also necessarily intertwined with the imagination.

From this, I would propose, that judgement follows, and as a result, emotional states such as ‘compassion’ can be evoked. So although this blog, and my recent discussion, is titled ‘empathy, compassion and understanding’, maybe the order needs to be jigged around a little, (and a few words added

Chain of empathy v2

There may be a case to be made that ‘understanding’ and ‘judgement’ are one and the same thing, however, that needn’t affect the above, given their central positions in this chain of reasoning. The inclusion of ‘experience and imagination’ at the start of this chain is just an acknowledgement that without the sensibilities to experience and the ability of the imagination to ‘re-represent’ ideas in our minds, we could get no further anyway.

* I originally called this diagram ‘the chain of empathy’ overlooking the fact that empathy plays only a part, and can therefore in theory be examined separately – notably without judgement (something the psychologist Carl Rogers famously proposed). Therefore I am presenting empathy here in the chain of judgement and emotional response, as it is often used, if not exclusively.  (Revision added – 27/03/2014)

** I used ‘anger’ as another example in the ‘emotional state’ parenthesis to try and demonstrate that ‘empathy’ alone is no guarantee of positive outcomes, but I don’t think that this conclusion is in itself a negative one, or in any way lessens the importance of empathy.

Initial Conclusions

Perhaps the more we try and understand others, on an emotional and factual basis, the better judgement’s we will make, and the more apt our emotional responses may be. It seems obvious that empathy stands at the forefront of this process, but it needn’t be one way. If we imagine the above chain as a snake eating its own tail, rather than a straight line with finite ends, then we can ‘feedback’ our own resultant emotional states into our empathy, and come to new and more complex conclusions. (Think of a psychiatrist asking ‘how does that make you feel?’ and then that answer informing a new round of thinking which may shed light on deeper, more subtle emotional states once this is considered; a kind of ‘self-empathy’, if you like).

Similarly, it seems this process works in degree’s of fidelity: it’s quality is dependent on how much information we actively seek out about the subject (the preconditions). It seems obvious that the less know I about someone, the less I am able to empathise, but that will not prevent me from empathising to some degree. So, if we want to empathise better, we need to seek out and experience as much as possible about the subject, or our resultant emotional states may be misjudged, underdeveloped or erroneous. (I would argue that this is the cause of much hatred and misunderstanding in the world – not a lack of empathy, but an underdeveloped and ill-informed empathy – a twisted or broken empathy, if you like).

Maybe, therefore, a project to understand, measure, and even look (in some cases) to repair empathy, would need to consider the range of experiences and information available (and readily accessible) needed for people to build a greater knowledge, and as a result, experience a better quality of empathy and a more apt emotional connection with others in the world.

Authors plea!

Please feel free to dispute, elaborate and comment on this initial exploration of empathy as I have set it out here. I enjoy the use of philosophical methods to explore concepts, but I also get frustrated with some approaches that purport to ‘know’ the answer. The value of an exercise such as this (I believe) is to throw up new considerations, tease out assumptions, and lead to continued discourse about the topic in the hope of shaping ‘real world’ activities and inform considered thinking and outcomes. For example, maybe ‘empathy’ is the process I’ve set out above, not just part of it – or maybe it’s nothing like this at all! There is still a lot to be discussed and explored here – this is barely a scratch on the tip of a massive iceberg (there goes those metaphors again!).

Thank you for reading.

Garry Abbott

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