This past April, I attended Spectrum Fantastic Art Live in Kansas City, MO for the second time. This event showcases the work of many illustrators and is a fantastic opportunity to connect, learn from, and celebrate their creative journeys. While I am a natural introvert, I found myself engaging with more people than I ever had before. My usual fears and worries were less prevalent. As a result, I came away resonating with the stories of each life with whom I spoke. I'd like to share the key that made this experience so successful for me. I hope it helps you in your own endeavors.
The key is:
Empathy - the ability to share and understand the feelings of another.
Practicing a healthy amount of empathy not only helps you connect with others, it also helps you understand yourself. To practice empathy, try doing these five things:
Your art is informed by your perspective. When you allow yourself to empathize, you're taking on the thoughts and feelings of the people you care about. These elements then become mixed with your personal thoughts and feelings. As a result, your perspective becomes enriched.
Picture a prism that normally refracts only three colors. With empathy, this prism is now opened to refracting tens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of colors!
How do you feel when someone remembers your name, especially after you just met them? Feels pretty awesome right? Try your hardest to do the same for others. I honestly have a horrible time doing this, so I'll ask their name at the beginning of the conversation and then, as the conversation is wrapping up, I'll say something like, 'I'm sorry, please remind me of your name again?' or, ‘And what was your name?'.
Asking a person's name twice will solidify their name in your mind and communicate that they are important to you.
3. Ask Relevant Questions
Asking relevant questions gives the person something solid to talk (and even vent) about because it is their area of expertise.
During Spectrum, I had the opportunity to be critiqued by Lauren Panepinto, the creative director for Orbit Books and Yen Press. During the critique, I asked her about the publishing industry. Specifically, I asked if there were good opportunities for illustrators in the book cover genre. From my observation, I could only see that the majority of book covers on store shelves were photograph-based. She responded by saying that currently both herself and other art directors were actually hiring more illustration work. The reason I haven't seen this increase is because they are hiring for covers being produced in 2018. She was deep into the next year already and knew the trends, but this is something I would've never known about if I hadn't asked!
Brownie points: if you wear something space-related or geeky, you will have at least one positive connection with Lauren. She's cool like that.
4. Develop a healthy identity
In our human nature, we tend to treat others the way we would want to be treated. If you have a healthy view of yourself, then the way you treat others will be healthy as well. The opposite is true as well. Low self-esteem versus prideful arrogance are unhealthy extremes. A healthy balance combines humility with self-respect.
Set boundaries in place and keep them stable, but also allow yourself to listen, grieve, and rejoice with the beautiful mess of peoples' lives. When you have boundaries, you prevent others from taking advantage of you. When you empathize, you are helping others feel heard. The important factor with both scenarios is your discretion.
What if you end up listening to someone who wanted to take advantage of you, but you didn't know beforehand? That's ok. You can't possibly know the intentions of every person you come into contact with. Simply remember the experience and set boundaries in place for the future. For any encounter with someone new, I would advise coming from a place of listening and observing first. It's better to start that way instead of assuming every person has ill intent.
There is a profound difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is passive listening. We're not really aware of what the other person is saying either because we just don't care or because we're dying to reply. Active listening engages with the speaker on a focused and deep level, communicating attentiveness, understanding, and acceptance.
We all want to be understood. Listening shows that you care about what someone is expressing because you want to understand where they're coming from. You cannot empathize if you do not know what someone has gone through, and cannot know what someone has gone through if you don't take time to listen.
We're all in this together. As artists, the only way to create work we are most passionate about is if we reach into the deepest parts of ourselves. This process requires us to be vulnerable. Recognizing that vulnerability in each other is what softens us to the joys and hardships we go through. I celebrate and grieve with the ups and downs my fellow peers experience because I've experienced it myself. Empathy softens us, which softens the people we connect with, which creates lasting impressions.
Try letting your heart be touched by the stories of people you care about. You'll not only experience the world on a deeper level, but you'll also have the opportunity to share that depth.