Understanding Empathy by Evey McKellar

The class exercise goes something like this:

We all stand in different areas of the room, with our faces to the wall. The topic is five major feelings: joy/happiness, passion/desire, anger, sadness, and fear. With one emotion at a time, we are asked to express our feeling, in hand gestures, words and their content, tone and volume of voice, expressive body language, facial expressions.

Begin at level one: what is your expression of this emotion? This continues for 30 seconds.

Then, level three. This continues for another 30 seconds.

Level seven.

Level ten, full throttle.

The whole class remains facing their prospective walls, screaming with anger or jumping with jubilance, pleading with sadness or shrinking with fear. We are practicing the various levels of these real, natural, important human emotions.

We’re listening to ourselves, understanding what our expression and processing of these feelings looks like, from within our own skin and experiences.

Alan Alda recently did an interview with Kate Bowler on her podcast, Everything Happens. The two of them are discussing how to teach medical professionals about empathy, and connecting with their patients. I kid you not, when Kate asks, ‘So how do you teach empathy,’ Alan responds:

“Start with improv. The exercises in improv are calibrated, so they build on each other. You use role play to practice what they’ve learned about the basis of empathy and connection. You listen so that you’re willing to let the other person change you — you make a connection in this way. That’s a radical thing to say - it’s risky. You don’t know what they’ll say. Why should you let them change you? But that’s the essence of relating. You do or say something, it does something to me. If I let it in, it changes me. Now we’re connected, we’re dancing.”

In improv, we learn how to build relatable characters and express true emotions. We tap into those expressions and heighten the experience on stage, playing up the stuff of life and real relationships. It teaches us to empathize with the human experience.

Which is a handy skill if you’re a medical professional.

A teacher.

A parent.

A politician.

Or just a human being attempting to interact with another human being.

For me, it was a tough exercise. Some feelings I relate to better than others; some were more foreign to me. Empathy is a struggle because in order to connect and empathize, we step into connecting with the feeling someone else brings. It’s vulnerable. If I’m trying to avoid that feeling, and you bring it up, then I may be quick to cover it, change the topic, or try to talk you into feeling something different.

As Alan Alda says, it’s risky.

And yet…

Empathy at its heart is the root of every move towards justice. If I let your experience and story impact me, I’m opening myself to be changed, moved, affected, and challenged.

Finding our way towards the heart of ourselves, we can find our way to each other. And finding our way towards each other leads us home to community, from strangers into neighbors.

Evey McKellar is a Level 3 Improv student, a writer and UMC clergy. She works for a nonprofit, lives in Dallas, and loves Cane Rosso.