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Empathy is a word from developmental psychology. If our parents were genuinely responsive to our needs, it is likely that we developed an ability to empathize with others. But millions of people, perhaps even the vast majority, had a poorer experience that resulted in lifelong relational difficulties.
However, even if they had that poorer experience in childhood it is their job in adulthood to heal those wounds and make the conscious decision to treat the people around them decently. That is what we want in the world of art sales and in the broader world as well. We begin with ourselves by practicing empathy and by treating potential customers and marketplace players as we ourselves would like to be treated.
Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings and the desire to do just that. It is both understanding and willingness. It is the mindreading, feeling-reading ability built into each of us that many people have trouble accessing or do not much want to access. It is in many ways an inconvenient ability, because it makes the people around us real—and how much more convenient if they remain unreal!
Why is it important to empathize? It’s important for all sorts of simple, straightforward reasons – but let’s focus on its importance for the sake of your career in the arts. If you don’t really “get” what marketplace players are thinking and feeling, you are much less likely to be able to deal with them or sell to them. The better you understand other people, the better are your chances for success.
Let’s take a simple example. You sell a book to an editor. The book comes out. You present her with an idea for a second book and she declines. If you take her “no” at face value and don’t take an interest in trying to fathom what she is thinking and feeling or what is going on in her world, all that you are left with is a ‘no.’ If, instead, you empathize with her as a person and with her in her position as editor, you have created at the very least the chance to get some more information—more information that may make all the difference both with respect to selling her this second book and with selling anyone this second book.
Empathizing here means understanding your editor’s reality. This has two separate and different meanings: understanding her as a person and understanding her role in her publishing house. Is she, as a person, someone who makes snap decisions but who can then be invited to rethink her snap decision based on rational arguments? Is she, as an editor, someone who has to answer to a lot of people about her decisions and who therefore needs to be armed—by you—with lots of good ammunition to present to those other people? If you don’t know these things or don’t think about these things, then you won’t be aware of how much ammunition you should present her with when you first propose a project or how to help her change her mind after she’s said “no” to a project.
Remember that although the word empathy contains the idea of compassion it is not exactly the same thing as sympathy or compassion. At its heart, it is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and fathom what is going on in human interactions. Understanding where your editor is coming from is different from sympathizing with her plight as a harried editor who is daily bombarded by hundreds of emails and different from feeling compassion for her inability to get her own book written.
In our usage of the word empathy, its proper antonym is not unfeelingness but misunderstanding. The proof that we are not empathizing with people is that we find ourselves not fully understanding where people are coming from or even completely misunderstanding where people are coming from.
To take a simple example, if you send your editor an email and take personally the fact that she hasn’t replied to you in 24 hours, you are not empathizing with her situation – that is, you are almost surely misunderstanding what is going on for her and where she is coming from.
Especially if you have given her something that she actually has to think about, it should follow that she needs some time to think about it. It may be your experience that in the past she has replied instantly to your emails—but think through whether this email is like those other emails. If she has replied instantly to your chatty emails with chatty emails of her own but this email asked her what she thought about your idea for your next book, it is a failure to empathize to expect that sort of email to get an instant response.
Most artists are susceptible to lots of these misunderstandings for two primary reasons. The first is that they don’t get sufficient opportunity to deal with marketplace players and so don’t have a clear picture of who they are, how they operate, and what their universe looks like. The second is that because marketplace players matter so much to them and make them so anxious, they can’t think very clearly about who these people really are. Marketplace players are lionized, demonized, fantasized about, and so on—but rarely thought clearly about.