Building Empathy Through Reading

How articles, essays, and books can help us understand one another better.

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One of the great­est gifts we can give those around us is a will­ing­ness to see things from their per­spec­tive. The word empa­thy” is com­mon­ly used these days, so I’ll focus on that word. (Though despite my appre­ci­a­tion for the word, I expect it will get over-used and even­tu­al­ly begin to go the way of syn­er­gy” and oth­er buzzwords.)

I’ve heard it said that build­ing empa­thy for oth­ers requires prox­im­i­ty to them. While I think there’s a lot of mer­it to that, I also believe there are oth­er ways to build empa­thy that may be more imme­di­ate­ly acces­si­ble. The main thing that comes to mind is reading.

When I was in high school, I hat­ed read­ing. At least, I thought I hat­ed read­ing. I avoid­ed read­ing assign­ments more than I care to admit. (Espe­cial­ly giv­en that some of my teach­ers from those days read this blog. 😄👋🏻) What I even­tu­al­ly real­ized, though, was that I hat­ed read­ing books that I was told to read. Go figure.

Lead­ers Are Readers

As I dug into entre­pre­neur­ship, I kept hear­ing this phrase, lead­ers are read­ers.” I was pret­ty clue­less about run­ning or grow­ing a busi­ness, so I leaned into that phrase and start­ed to pick up some books. It didn’t take long at all for me to com­mit to this new­ly devel­op­ing habit. I was get­ting so much out of books, and I kicked myself — and occa­sion­al­ly still do — for not read­ing more sooner.

What start­ed as a focus on busi­ness-themed books even­tu­al­ly grew into oth­er gen­res as well. I was enjoy­ing books on my faith, phi­los­o­phy, his­to­ry, biogra­phies, soci­ol­o­gy, and more. Some­where along the way, I real­ized how much I was learn­ing about oth­er peo­ple through reading.

(At this point, some of you are like­ly think­ing, Duh!” I know, I know. I’m not writ­ing this for you, though. I’m writ­ing this for oth­er ver­sions of Past Erik. 😆)

As I read more and more authors who had vast­ly dif­fer­ent life expe­ri­ences from my own, I noticed I start­ed to devel­op more empa­thy toward those around me. I jumped to few­er con­clu­sions about inten­tions or actions. I more eas­i­ly remem­bered that I don’t know cer­tain aspects of their lives — and like­ly nev­er will. And I start­ed to rec­og­nize them as more than just a small part of them. (“Cowork­er,” musi­cian,” artist,” friend from high school,” attor­ney,” pas­tor,” etc.)

Read­ing broad­ly was help­ing me devel­op empa­thy. So I began to choose authors and books more strate­gi­cal­ly, going down paths I wouldn’t usu­al­ly default to. From mem­oirs, his­tor­i­cal reviews, fic­tion, and more, I cred­it read­ing for much of the empa­thy I expe­ri­ence with others.

So what?

I’ve been think­ing about this sub­ject for a lit­tle while and decid­ed it was worth shar­ing. Even if there is just one read­er who decides to start read­ing more after com­ing across these thoughts, it’ll be worth the time to write them. Read­ing has been such an impact­ful invest­ment that I work to find ways to share it with others.

Books that have helped me

Here’s an incom­plete list of books that have helped me in recent years. Many of them are writ­ten pri­mar­i­ly from the per­spec­tive of the author and focus on their lived experiences.

How to search

Are you won­der­ing how to choose some books that may help in build­ing empa­thy? It won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Here’s one thought that may help: Choose an area of life where you find your­self frus­trat­ed or con­fused by a sub­ject and also find your­self repeat­ed­ly say­ing, why would they do/​say/​think that?” This may be a good indi­ca­tion of opportunity. 

Hap­py Read­ing! Let me know if you end up choos­ing a book or two in this way. I’d love to hear from you. 

Open­ing Pho­to by Ben White on Unsplash

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