The Practice of Empathy

It’s a sad indictment of our contemporary society that empathy is disappearing as fast as the rainforests, leaving its toxic air and a barren emotional landscape behind. We all need to be more conscientious of our empathy reserves. It’s an unfortunate fact that we will all need to recover, rediscover and reaffirm our ‘well’ of empathy. Throughout this blog, I will lay out a number of do’s and don’ts in order to achieve this.
Almost every trend in our current landscape is leading us away from the core of what it means to be a creative artist. How many pictures do we need of ourselves in a mirror working out, of the meals we are about to eat, or the latest group selfie of us partying. This is all part of branding culture. This is “Me! Me!” culture. 
My goal is not to write a treatise on empathy in a broader world sense (Brené Brown is a great source for that), but to discuss practical and doable activities to aid us. I believe all people need to “up” their empathy quotient. However, the artist has a special, deep and lasting obligation to be able to tap into themselves and share with others. Like a fish unaware that it is in the water, we forget that our lives and the level of our consciousness will seriously impact (positively and negatively) on how we approach a script, a role, or a set of sides. In short, we can’t bring to a role more than we allow ourselves to be. If you want to be a better actor, be a better, richer, more fully realized human being. My last point before I dive in is that the misuse and the superficial use of the word “EMPATHY” leads to the deployment of acting techniques that belong in the dustbin of history. They are often inadequate to handle the intricacies of our lives and the stories writers are writing for the 21 century.
Empathy is often defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, even fictional characters. 
Sympathy is when you feel for another person but don’t necessarily understand them or what they are going through emotionally. 
Empathy fuels connection – Sympathy creates disconnection. 
There are 3 types of empathy and 4 attributes of empathy. I have listed them below and attached a brief commentary on how they pertain and impact on acting training. I have also created a few exercises that you can practice every day that will aid in your growth as an actor (by raising your empathy levels). Some are mine and some are my adaptation of old acting techniques that I dusted off and recalibrated for the times in which we currently live. 

This is the lowest form of empathy. I believe that traditional acting technique is consumed by the cognitive. It has a long, proud, pedigree. It is rooted in Aristotelian logic and Newtonian physics. It migrates north to Russia (Stanislavski) and across the ocean to America (Uta Hagan). It is preoccupied with analysis. However, dismantling the human body and studying its parts and the relationship between the organ tells us absolutely nothing about the human spirit. 
This is the next level of empathy. This is the world of Strasberg and Meisner. It adds Freud and psychotherapy into the mix. Concepts like emotion, memory/recall, substitution, sensory work and “magic ifs” are the bread and butter of this approach. It is rooted in the belief that an “acting technique” is required to experience yourself and others, independent of nature’s natural gifts: the ones we are born with
Let’s look carefully at the above statement based on our own experience. You start to share something with somebody, and they say, “Oh, I can relate to that.” The moment somebody says, “Oh, I can relate” you know it’s their attempt to turn the conversation around onto themselves. Nobody who says, “I can relate” continues to listen to you. When this is applied to text analysis it will lead to egotistical performances. It becomes about “your” choices and “your” desire to impress casting. There is no deep concern for the intricacy of the human choices that the characters must make. The character wants what they want. The character doesn’t want to book the job.
This is the highest form of empathy. As I said earlier, It is nature’s gift. It produces a different response. When somebody empathizes with you, what do they do? They may touch your knee or your shoulder. They may even emit a little sound like, “Mmm.” No need for words. Very soon in the “sharing,” their face will mirror your face. That’s empathy at the highest level. When you watch a good movie, a good TV show or read a book, you’ll find that you are not “relating.” You are empathizing. Nature is triggering you. You don’t have to put the TV on pause or take a moment to find a way to “relate to it” or do “a substitution” to get into the show or movie. It is empathy, and our capacity to empathize. Art would not exist and we could not survive as a species without it.

credit: Brené Brown
– Examine closely when you are “triggered” by an event, object or person. Pay attention to when you react without thought or understanding and the events and choices that led up to that response. Were there alternative responses that might have been considered?
–  Practice paradigm shifting – Ask yourself several times a day, “Is there another way to think about this other than the ones I am habitually trained to think?” I believe it was Dustin Hoffman who said, ‘if I can figure out how my character thinks, I can figure out who they are.” Change how you think and you change who you are.
– Sit across from someone and simply breathe together. Relax the face and flow without judgment of self or the other. Let the other in for 5 minutes. Try to do this at least twice a week. 
– Stop trying to listen, just breathe and hear what the other person is actually saying. Remove “ya…but…” from your discussions and arguments. 
– Observe someone and start to walk and talk like them, including their tensions, speech and rhythms. This will activate your muscle memory and trigger deep associations. You might find a well of empathy. When you see a homeless person stop to consider that they may have had a mother who loved them at birth. Life throws us curves.
– Enough with the selfies! Take pictures of others. You don’t need to be in every shot. It is an opportunity for us to see other human beings through a lens. Live in the moment, don’t always try to capture it. There is something quite vulnerable in letting oneself be seen rather than being presentational. A candid shot is way better than a staged shot. 


Your responsibility is to bring your character to life. Let them have their own voice. Understand there is no such thing as “the character” separate and independent from you.

– Sit with somebody and each of you take the opposite position than the one you actually believe. Make the case for the other side as if your life depended on it. 
– This is an adaptation of a Gestalt Therapy technique that I learnt from a Weekend I spent with Fritz Perls (The founder of gestalt therapy). 
Set up 3 to 4 chairs. Sit in one. Tape a picture of a person you are close to or having difficulty understanding. Tell them how you feel by sharing something that’s been sitting with you awhile. Then move to their chair and have them respond to what you said. Move back and respond to them. Continue until there is an understanding between you. If others come up in the discussion you can add them to the mix. It is best to start with a duet back and forth between the chairs first, and add as needed.
– Join groups that you vehemently disagree with. Watch or listen to news feeds that don’t just reinforce what you believe.
– Every now and again, consider you may be wrong.
There are those who do not have the power of empathy. We call these people narcissists or worse, sociopaths and psychopaths. They know how to simulate it at best. This applies to actors. An actor who is trying to relate, is simulating it. An actor engaging in the 3rd stage of empathy is sharing it. 
– Reduce the number of pictures of yourself in a mirror. Narcissism is the antithesis of empathy.
– Instead of taking pictures of your food take some food down to a local food bank.
– Too often we engage in virtual empathy. Empathy requires connection not observation. Empathy should lead to action so there is consequence. Virtual empathy leads us to have an empty memory of something we really never engaged in.
Read last weeks blog: The Power of Empathy

This is where we come in as artists. Our responsibility is to bring these scripts to life. We evolved with the ability to share and communicate with each other. We were able to form clans, tribes, societies, and art because of it. 
– First and foremost read a script like you would a novel, watch a film, listen to a song etc. Lie in bed, sit on a couch. Have a cup of tea, a glass of wine, a beer, or go for a walk. Do not treat it like it is homework!

It is our duty and responsibility as artists to engage with ourselves and others in the most deep and profound ways we can. If you don’t stop to consider or let others into your consciousness, then how in good conscience can you bring any of these characters to life?
Empathy is natures’ greatest gift to us. It is the single most important and powerful tool we have as humans and as actors: without it, our ability to understand and feel for one another and our humanity will be lost. Our ability to share it with others will be diminished and we lose the privilege to call ourselves artists.