Building Empathy: A Surprising Reading List For A Better Work Life

Seeing the world from different perspectives can aid compassion.

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The idea of picking up a classic like Anna Karenina might sooner cause some of us to groan -- either from the sheer weight of the thing or from memories of slogging through it in the high school classroom -- than to imagine it helping us with our relationships.

But researchers Emanuale Castano and David Kidd of the New School for Social Research in New York are saying it does just that. In a recent study, the social psychologists found that reading literary fiction helps readers more readily connect and empathize with their fellow humans.

"Understanding others' mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies," they said in the study.

What about nonfiction and popular fiction? Nonfiction -- at least the serious, impersonal kind like "The Story of the Most Common Bird in the World," a work used in the study -- is not effective at all. Pop fiction, even if it's about people, is not much better, the researchers found.

"Maybe popular fiction is a way of dealing more with one's own self, maybe, with one's own wants, desires, needs," Albert Wendland, a Seton Hill University popular fiction professor, told the New York Times.

By comparison, literary fiction, whether it's classic or contemporary, often forces the reader to walk in someone else's shoes and take on the world from their point of view. Imagining yourself as someone else could very well be the key to the study's conclusion. Think about the least empathetic people in the world -- children -- and this starts to make sense. Children are a blank slate with few experiences to draw from. They are always learning how their actions affect others. In fact, to build empathy in kids, Pam Allyn at Psychology Today recommends to raise a reader.

How can you apply this to work life?

For those who aren't avid readers and may blush to admit they haven't even picked up a novel in years, starting with something as dense as War and Peace might not be a good idea.

"The learning that results from such works is subtle and circuitous, and has none of the quick application that, for example, any guidebook of instructions would provide," Dr. Wendland told AOL Jobs.

Systematic reading, however, will provide results. Wendland has a suggestion for a jumping off point. "One book that does outrightly teach empathy (if not interviewing skills): To Kill a Mockingbird."

Reading has the added benefits of lowering your risk of getting Alzheimer's, reducing stress, improving your memory and even making you seem sexier. This an obvious truth, but bears repeating since reading rates among Americans have dropped precipitously over the years: reading books just makes you smarter overall. And as AOL Jobs reported recently, empathy will be an important job skill to master to get ahead in the future.

With the help of experts, AOL Jobs has compiled a suggested reading list containing books that are great starters for people looking to improve relationships in their day-to-day work life and, by extension, bolster their overall well being. If you get through this list and find that you have an appetite for more, we suggest joining a book club or checking out the titles that made Oprah Winfrey's Complete List.

Remember: this list is not intended to change you into an interviewing guru or a social butterfly -- it's all about shifting your perspective.

If you have your own literary fiction suggestions, leave them in the comments below.



H/t: Buzzfeed

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