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How the Habit of Reading Literary Fiction Develop Our Empathy at Work

About a month ago, a friend of mine told me that people gave her a strange look for saying that she loves to read literary fiction. As an English lit graduate (in Asia), this is nothing new to me. People often assume that literature is not a big deal.

In fact, reading literary fiction is not just a way to ‘escape’ from the real world. Instead, it helps us to look at the world from different perspectives. It challenges us to be more empathetic as a human being.

Little did I know that being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes is such a rare gift today. Although being an empath often feel like a curse, I’d rather have too much empathy rather not at all.

Nonfiction readers praise nonfiction books for its ability to teach them ‘life lessons’ in a reasonable way. They said fiction books are pointless as it has no ‘factual’ knowledge. Well, reading literary fiction won’t instantly makes you more emphatic or increase your emotional intelligence either. But, judging literary readers as time-wasters is definitely a big mistake.

In fact, exposure to fiction works is believed to increase our ability to understand others’ needs, motivation, and desires. And essentially, I can say the exposure to literary fiction can help strengthen our problem-solving skills because it forces us to see a greater possibility imagined.

Then how does reading literary fictions makes us more empathic at work?

Seeing Things from Other’s Point of View

People who loves to read fiction usually cultivate the habits of wondering and paying attention to details. While for some reasons it makes them considered as over-thinkers because they always trying to see past beyond what-so-called ‘common logic’. Yet, when it comes to understanding other’s point of view, it doesn’t have to be a bad habit.

People who read fictions don’t dispute the value of understanding each situation to the core issues. They have the ability to ‘read between the lines’ and are comfortable in understanding the complexities before finally (trying to) solve it.

How does that matter at work? By definition, solving a problem is often resulting in a win-lose situation. And this can be easily changed to a ‘win-win’ situation if you can pay special attention to what everyone wants. It’s true that you can’t please everyone but I believe we all have the responsibility to at least pay attention to the struggles others may have.

When we read fiction, we are challenged to see other’s POV also to identify and understand the possible causes before we conclude the “What”, “Why”, and “How” of a situation. Therefore, it makes fiction readers a better problem solver — they see past the engine.

Acknowledging Others’ Perspective

Even though I’ve studied literature for four years or so, I never quite cared so much about the direct link between literature readers and empathy (tbh). However, something I realized recently is that a lot of people cannot process social complexity all that well.

I’m not saying that they’re ignorant, but they seem unable to predict how other people might feel, act, and react. It’s either they act as if the world revolve around them or completely against them. Nothing in between.

In the work environment, some people who rarely read fictions seem to find it hard to make connections with their colleagues, subordinates, and bosses. And that is actually one of few advantages that we all can take from reading fictions. Why? Because when we read fictions, we get pushed to acknowledge — to connect with the authors’ mind & imagination to be able to understand the story and experience it.

Fictions readers often find it easier to adapt to the work environment because they tend not to have a problem with social functioning. It easier also for them to conclude whether they’re in the right environment or not at that time.

Increasing the Awareness

When people have no clue what will be going to happen in their future, they become frustrated. And when they feel like they belong nowhere, they become cynical and sad. In the course of our lives, we have been taught to set goals and new years’ resolutions, yet sometimes we overlook one thing — human factors.

Avid fiction readers see the story of each book they read as destinations. They read and predict what’s going to happen in the next chapter, but never to the point of demanding a closure.

Let’s say the novelist dies in the middle of his/her stories, the readers might be mad but they will see it as that’s how our lives are. They won’t stress too much about it because it’s very human to die in the middle of something or to fail in achieving goals. It’s not about not being a purpose-driven person but it’s about increasing our awareness that there are some things that we couldn’t control. And that’s OK.

If you are wondering how this type of thinking could benefit us at work, the answer is pretty simple: reading fiction allows you to be more aware of the environment around you. The world of fiction is not only reflect and interpret life, but they give us information that can shape our way of thinking. We will learn that we all get to choose how we see and react to things. And most importantly, to finally understand that ups and downs are always be part of life.

After all, in the world built on misperceptions and unexpected things, our approach towards life must evolve or we will be left behind. Don’t just read the books that tell us all the What, Why and How in a very obvious way, but try to dive deeper into the unseen, untapped, unspoken — because it might be where the gems are found.


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