Brené Brown on the Power of Empathy
January 07, 2014
Currently I'm compiling a list of my "Top-10 books for 2014." One of the books I'm including on that list is Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by University of Houston research professor Brené Brown. I am a huge Brené Brown fan. I first wrote about her here back in 2011. Her first TEDx Talk (featured on the TED website) has nearly 13 million views now—and she's been on Ophra!. Her message resonates with many, many people, to say the least. In this 21-minute RSA talk Brown says that it's a myth that vulnerability is what makes us weak. Instead, it is the courage to be vulnerable, to take a risk, that leads to deeper connection and engagement. If you do not have 21-minutes to watch the entire talk now, at least watch this animated RSA Short which uses audio from her talk to create something special. This RSA short features a visualization of Brown's ideas regarding the difference between sympathy and empathy, and why it matters. The animation is by Katy Davis (www.gobblynne.com), and it's brilliant.
The Power of Vulnerability (full RSA Talk)
Interesting ideas regarding blame in this talk. Brown suggests that blame is a way of discharging anger. When we are listening to someone's story and attempting to make connections to find out who's to blame then we are not truly listening with empathy. But empathy, says Brown, is not scripted, it's not something you can write a formula for and then say OK go out and be empathetic by following some sort of decision tree. Empathy is about being present and wholly engaged without your protective armour. There are not hard and fast rules for empathy, but Brown says that there is at least one thing for sure: No empathetic response begins with "at least" (Something she explains in the short video above as well as in the longer video below).
Since we're on the subject, what about empathy and storytelling?
Stephen Apkon suggests in his book The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens that good storytellers are, among other things, empathetic. "All good storytellers, in whatever media, are first keen observers of the world around them," he says. "They see nuance and story in the small details of life, and they possess the skills to convey these observations in compelling ways." All good storytellers, then, do not see the world in a kind of solipsistic way but rather have the ability to slow down and see things from other points of view, and more importantly, from another person's particular point of view. In fact, Apkon argues that learning the language and the tools of filmmakers and other visual communicators can teach young people empathy. "[T]here are three primal components to the experience of media—what we see, what we hear, and what we feel....All three together help develop empathy toward and a connection with the character of a story, which informs children's social and emotional development." I do not know if empathy is wholly innate or if it is learned through education; I suspect it's a little of both. Certainly much has been written about empathy and its correlation with high emotional intelligence (See Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ). No matter how empathetic we may think we are today, certainly we can all benefit from becoming more empathetic listeners, communicators and people in general. I'm very grateful for the work that Dr. Brown has done in this field. I'm not quite the communicator—or the person—that I want to be, but the work of Brené Brown and others is helping me on the journey.
Much more great stuff on Brené Brown's website