Back in 2018 I was asked to contribute ideas about how I use tap dance as a vehicle to build students capacity for empathy to this book. I met the editor, Elif Gokcigdem, at the World Summit for Innovation and Entrepreneurship – where I presented this piece on the relationship between man and machine. What does a tap dancer have to say about empathy building? Over the next few weeks, as we approach the Designing for Empathy 4th Annual Summit, I thought I’d share some of the ideas here.
Empathy, compassion, love, care, and trust. All of these exist in the context of relationship. With oneself, with others, and with the world around us, relationship is the context we all operate in. It is inescapable. How we relate, then becomes an essential question. Understanding how we relate points to understanding what mediates our relationships. What are the beliefs, values, thoughts, feelings, and desires that govern our actions within the context of relationship? It is here that differences between people form. From the seemingly mundane ways of thinking, to the deepest of held beliefs we all have ideas about how we see the world and things should work. We may think, “If I do this, then this should happen, because this is how the world works.” Or, “If I say this, then this should be the response, because this is how people are.” As we navigate the world, we bump into others, even God or nature itself, that may have different ideas.
Empathy, then, is a mode of relating. When we relate to someone with empathy, we aim to understand them, their circumstances and feelings, from their perspective. We desire to broaden our scope of possibilities (what we expect to be) as we take in what they are experiencing. One of the obstacles to relating with empathy is a feeling of difference or separation. How can I ever understand what someone else is really feeling? How can I ever really know what someone else is going through? These questions of course are quite valid. However, empathy does not require of us to know the person we are relating to. It only requires a curiosity and willingness to learn from them – and a little imagination to envision what life might be like from their perspective.
There are three things that I learned while teaching tap dancing that can help in this pursuit. They are common context, listening further, and communal imagination. This week I’m going to explore the idea of common context as a way of overcoming some of the obstacles that keep us from relating with empathy.
Human beings have at least two worlds in which they operate: the visible and the invisible. The visible world is all the things we can see, hear, and touch. It includes physical actions, people, and objects. We navigate this world with our bodies and our senses. The invisible world includes our thoughts, feelings, desires, and beliefs. We navigate this world primarily with our mind. Both worlds are intertwined and interactive, and form us in particular ways. There are differences of experience in both worlds. In the visible world we might easily see the differences between geography, physical bodies, experiences of wealth and poverty, and forms of expressions such as music, dance, fashion, and language. In the invisible world we experience differences in ways of thinking and feeling, world views, value systems, and individual and communal desires.
Each difference we encounter will initially create a space between us and whomever we are encountering. We recognize that we are not the same. The encounter of difference can be the experience of something new. The difference is not what we are used to, or what we already know. If we judge it to be good, there is often little challenge in the relationship – the space between us feels like it become smaller almost automatically. If we judge the difference to be bad, the space between us seem to increase – we feel further apart. As space increases feelings of greater separation can lead to outright division, and even isolation.
The increased space that we create and experience on account of differences serves a purpose. A good increase allows for greater agency, self-expression, and the honoring of individual boundaries. A bad increase serves as a form of rejection, condemnation, and punitive social isolation.
Common context is an idea that works against the kind of increase in space that leads to rejection, condemnation, and isolation. Common context says that even if we are not the same in one experience of life, that there are difference there, we may have something larger in common. There is something that connects us that is more fundamental than a particular experience. Maybe there is something in our visible world that we share? Maybe there is something in our invisible world that share?
Today, much is made of the differences that we experience in our visible worlds. Borders, physical attributes, wealth disparities, and differences in music, dance, fashion, and language are all being amplified. In the worst light they serve as dividers. If you are this, then you can’t be that. Divisions in our invisible world are harder to see. They are after all, unseen. However, they do exist. They show up in our holding to a stagnant views of human personality. If I am introverted, then I can never possibility enjoy the company of people. Meanwhile, the extrovert can never enjoy solitude. Therefore, the introvert and the extrovert will always be distant from one another in their ability to relate. Of course, this exaggeration is comical, but makes a point. Few things in the experience of being human are that hardened. They can be, but they can also soften, and transform.
In both our worlds the broadest common context that we all share is that of life. Our individual experiences of life, of course, do differ. However, common context gives us the opportunity to enter relating with one another with empathy. We have a shared starting point, no matter how small it may seem. The more we recognize the common context, the easier the entering.
There is an important nuance here. I’m not talking about common experience. I’m talking about common context. Context is the frame in which an experience happens. The experience is the stuff an individual encounters, takes in, and takes away, from a particular event. Our experiences are rarely common. Even if the circumstances are the same, what we take on and take away from them can be drastically different. Common context however reaches past the details of experience towards the broader frame. The broader the frame, the more possibility of having something in common with someone else.
Stepping into Someone’s Shoes
When stepping into someone else’s shoes, empathy does not begin at having shared life circumstances. It begins in having a common context that allows for shared experiences of life. A six-year-old losing their favorite toy and a grown adult losing an elderly family member are not the same experiences. They are not even the same kinds of loss. They are, however, both experiences of loss. The adult can begin to empathize with the child, and vice versa. Another example is frustration with authority. That is something shared by many teenagers and adults alike, although often on account of different situations. If given the opportunity, both may begin to see the others perspective. Common context is not the fruition of empathy. It is a way into its earliest beginnings.
The human context that allows for loss, joy, frustration, giddiness, curiosity, peace, anger, fulfillment, rest, and anxiety is something that we share. The unique responses to life can be seen as contexts of the inner life of a human being. They are also shared, despite the different circumstances that instigate them. These shared contexts are doors of entry into the world of another person. We share the ideas of loss, frustration, giddiness, etc. We can use them as points of connection to overcome the differences that would otherwise separate us.
By ending this article here, it feels as if the idea is horribly incomplete. Common context is not a magic bullet, nor is it tool that is sufficient by itself. Used without care, it can close the space between two people too quickly and minimize someone’s individual experience. When it comes to empathy, it is important at all times to be learning from whomever we are relating with. Common context doesn’t do that for us, but it might help us get to a point where we can more readily.