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The word “empathy” refers to the often-hard-to-achieve realization that other people exist and have their own thoughts, feelings and needs. It is the awareness of that reality and, when we want it to also mean the following, it is the marriage of that awareness with some compassion in our dealings with those other real people.
You are creating for yourself but you are also creating for other people; you are relating to other people; you are working with marketplace players and selling to your audience—all of this requires that you understand the reality of other human beings and, to a certain extent and in a measured way, care about them.
A creative life requires that you have a good awareness of others and that you exhibit some fellow feeling. You do not want to “give yourself away” in the process but you do want to know what it feels like to walk a mile in the shoes of other human beings.
One unfortunate but typical way to be is to picture buyers as people who deserve to be manipulated and who must be reached by virtue of sales tactics that play on human weaknesses like greed and envy. A second, better way to be is to picture buyers as your fellow human beings who can be met without manipulation and without trickery. If the question is, which way garners the better results, sadly enough the answer may be the first.
However, if the question is, how do you want to live your life, the answer is surely by practicing the second approach—by practicing empathy and by championing the principle that people do not exist only to be manipulated.
What does the phrase “practicing empathy” mean? It means developing your personality sufficiently that you experience people as real human beings with needs, desires, and a point of view rather than as props in your personal play. It means, if you are a parent, recognizing that it hurts your child if you do not honor your agreements, if you fail to pick him up when you say that you will, and if you strike him because you are upset and he is handy to hit.
It means, if you are a teacher, providing feedback in a humane and careful way and not, just because you possess the power, in cruel and toxic ways. It means, if you are a soldier, understanding that the people you are killing are human beings and not characters in a video game. It means investing in the reality of other human beings.
This way of being may not do as good a job of getting you what you want as leading from unbridled self-interest may. I know someone who tends to get her way in her business dealings because she talks nonstop and argues for her positions with such seamless ferocity that you have no chance to voice an objection or present your needs or your side of the story.
As a result, she does very well. She gets without giving, has you do her work, increases her share and reduces your share, and nicely grows her business. If you complain, she has no idea what you’re talking about and will produce a thousand reasons why you are wrong. She is defensive, combative, and argumentative. As I say, she does very nicely.
You do not have to be this person.
The average person is relatively defenseless against the extraordinarily resolute manipulations of the “business sociopath.” But while we may have great trouble protecting ourselves against them or dealing sensibly with them, that doesn’t mean that we ought to become them. You want to practice empathy not because it is the best sales tactic but because it is the honorable way to relate to other human beings. It is the least cruel way; the least harmful way; the least bullying way. It is the way we make ourselves proud.
Nor does it preclude sales! It does reduce the number of tactics we can use as we go about the business of selling our wares but we embrace that reality because we don’t want to live our life as if ethics were a silly word used only by fools.
Say that you’ve produced a new series of twelve paintings. What would it look like to not practice empathy? Telling everyone that there is only one painting left and that they must hurry, even though in actuality all twelve remain. Telling everyone that the Prince of Prussia has purchased three and that the Queen of Sheba is about to snatch up the rest. Calling up two collectors and telling each that the other is about to grab up Number 3, the very best painting in the series. Knowing that the series is weak and touting it as great. Talking befuddled little old men and little old ladies into buying. Tripling the price and giving everyone a fifty percent discount. Explaining that your violent imagery would make perfect Christmas gifts. Twisting the arm of your sister-in-law and guilt-tripping your friend from college into buying. And so on.
All of these tactics are practiced in business. They work. But they are not the only ways to deal with other human beings. You can be as energetic, powerful, and assertive as you like and still practice empathy. You can advocate for your new paintings with great gusto by telling everyone that they exist, by making phone calls and sending out emails on their behalf, by approaching everyone on your contact list, by asking your friend John if he will bring your paintings to the attention of gallery owner Sue (but not demanding that he do so), by articulating their virtues and doing an excellent job of expressing their value, and so on.
You can sell with great enthusiasm while still minding the rights and realities of others. Yes, by operating this way you write off many standard sales tactics. But countless avenues requiring only your energy and your acumen remain open to you.