How Reading Literary Fiction Improves Your Empathy at Work

About a month ago, a friend of mine told me that people gave her a funny look for saying that she loves to read literary fiction. As an English lit graduate (in an Asian country), this is nothing new to me. People often assume that literature is not a big deal. On the contrary, 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 have more empathy as a human being.

Little did I know that being able to put yourself in another person’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 have empathy or increase your emotional intelligence either. But, judging literary readers as time-wasters is definitely a big mistake.

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

Improve problem-solving skills beyond common sense

What differentiates readers of fiction from nonfiction is their ability to make an assessment of situations. Fiction readers usually designed to 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 the logic and give a damn over small things. Yet, when it comes to problem-solving, 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 solving 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 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.

Enhance social functioning and empathy

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 revolved 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 are pushed to connect with the authors’ mind & imagination to be able to understand the story and experience it.

In other words, reading fictions challenge us to understand others and see the world from a new perspective. 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.

Stress Management

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. If the novelist dies in the middle of a sentence, 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 acknowledging human factors in our lives.

If you are wondering how this type of thinking could benefit us at work, the answer is pretty simple: reading fiction allows you to understand 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.

Reading fiction helps you grow empathy

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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