Want to understand real people? Get to know the characters in great fiction

LISA RATHKE/ASSOCIATED PRESS Some of the books in the collection of the late singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, in West Barnet, Vt. The collection is for sale, and proceeds from the online sales of individual books and collections will support a community center in West Barnet.

Writer Susan Pinker once summarized multiyear research into the relationship between reading fiction and how we understand others.

 

She discussed several studies between 2006 and 2013 that reveal remarkably similar results. What follows are two quotes that speak poignantly to the art and craft of being both a caring friend and an effective adviser.

“Fiction reading,” Pinker writes, “predicted higher levels of empathy. Such readers also lived large in the flesh-and-blood social sphere, with richer networks of people to provide entertainment and support than people who read less fiction.”

In other words, entering deeply into a well-written novel expands our ability to connect with and understand others.

She continues: “Later studies confirmed that reading fiction causes a spike in the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions – at least in the short term.”

Could it be that advisers who effectively parse client emotions stand on more solid ground when offering counsel, guidance, even wisdom?

A 2013 study took a different route. Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd of the New School for Social Research wondered if the “type” of fiction mattered. Their findings?

“Only literary fiction, which requires readers to work at guessing characters’ motivations from subtle cues, fostered empathy.”

When we step into a plot populated with characters whose history, motives, prejudices, flaws and fundamental humanity stare us in the face, we learn greater care and compassion for others. In a way, the novel becomes a laboratory in which we learn how to do our work more sensitively.

Have you read a good novel recently?

Clearly, advisers are in the people-reading, people-decoding, people-understanding business. Long before we get close to determining risk tolerance, a tax strategy, estate challenges or investment recommendations, we must sit with, listen to, and journey with our clients to that wonderful but mystical place where we experience their story with genuine interest and empathy.

These studies suggest – perhaps prove! – that reading fiction unveils insights into this critical work.

Put another way, traveling through a novel is a no-risk relational simulation in which we observe how the story’s characters handle disappointment and wonder, success and failure, joy and grief, love and rejection. And, of course, the bonus that reading fiction generously gives is the ability to escape, for an hour or two, the demands of our very real lives.

So here are five novels that will place you in empathy’s laboratory.

Kathleen Grissom’s haunting novel, The Kitchen House, set in antebellum Virginia, opens windows on the complicated, painful issues of race, family, ethics and loyalty.

A Man Called Ove is Fredrik Backman’s engaging story about a widowed man whose curmudgeonly ways do not deter an immigrant woman and her family from showing him how much love he has to give.

All I can say is that Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave plumbs the depths of human courage in the face of injustice.

We meet Marie-Laure in France and Werner in Germany in Anthony Doerr’s page-turner All the Light We Cannot See. Caught in the madness of World War II, Marie-Laure struggles with blindness while Werner internally battles the evil of Nazism.

The last gem is M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans. When a childless couple discovers a dead man and a newborn infant in a dinghy washed ashore on a rocky island off the coast of western Australia, all manner of ethical dilemmas surface. What does it mean, and how are lives changed when doing the right thing collides with one’s deepest longings and loves?

In these novels, indeed in all well-written fiction, we meet characters who struggle with who they are, what life is demanding from them, ethical and moral decisions of all kinds, and how best to face the future staring them in the face.

Such are the very real issues that those you serve bring you every day in your practice. So read fiction, enjoying a well-written story while discovering how much more there is to learn in becoming the best adviser you can be.

 

The writer, who lives in Augusta, is the author of Cadence of Care: Imagining a Transformed Advisor-Client Experience and can be followed on his blog at www.timowings.com.

 

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