The Challenge of Empathy: A Mile in My Shoes

A Mile in my Shoes

The Centre for Stories has spent the past few months pondering empathy and thinking about what makes an story a way of creating empathetic bonds.

For the last four months we, along with 3 brilliant producers,  have collected 31 stories in order  to paint a collective portrait of West Australia.  Fueled by the philosophy of cultural thinker Roman Krznaric, driven by the Artistic Vision of Clare Patey and Producer Kitty Ross from the Empathy Museum, we have had the pleasure and privilege of exploring this topic as part of PIAF's 'A Mile in My Shoes' installation.

Some of the stories were carefully curated, hand picked with a strong intent to evoke a specific reaction.  Others, most of them, were an outcome of letting the individual voice speak and share the story of their lives, a much longer, emotionally invested but rewarding process.  An additional group served to paint pictures in words, reflective of WA's very unique environment, culture and landscape.  We've very intentionally included voices which the audience will find particularly difficult to empathise with such as the mining magnate or sex worker.

Throughout the process, one thing became extraordinarily clear.  It was the difficulties we all have with putting ourselves in another person’s shoes and curbing our "knee-jerk" reactions to certain voices.  Even among the small group of curators, there were an extremely varied reaction to the stories.  Some we thought were 'a bit dull' really resonated strongly with other people, and Clare Patey said something that stuck with us throughout the collecting process... "Different people will react in different ways, and that's ok." 

At the beginning of the story collection process, not going to lie, we were definitely aiming to trigger a specific emotional response.  We started with the story, the drama , the twist, the unexpected.  Patiently, Kitty and Clare guided us back to the point.  Not all people that you should be able to empathise with have dramatic lives.  They could be the office worker, the cleaner, the guy jogging through the park in the morning.  We have fallen for the trap, we had chosen dramatic stories because we had confused sympathy for empathy.  Wap-wow (sung in tune of a game show 'wrong answer' tune).

Where did we go wrong?  Sympathy and Empathy are responses of the audience which are out of our control.  The only thing we could control is the amount of trust and space we gave the talent for them to share their own stories.  Only then could their story connect with the audience and make up the right ingredients for empathy.  

So in conclusion to this rather long post (sorry), here is a taste of one of the stories from the installation.  We will post a new story each week so keep on checking back.