Someone Else’s Shoes: The Practice Of Empathy
By Tom Warneke
Those who work in the entertainment industry are rather peculiar people. Let’s face it – we thrive on change, we thrive on difference. Unlike almost every other industry on earth, we’re fans of the uncertain and admirers of an ever changing landscape. We work within our industry but often as a service to a multitude of other industries. We work in different countries, with different people, we travel a lot. We’re often working in tight deadlines and tough demands, strange conditions and with less than ideal resources.
For all of the tools and technology we have and for all the access to information the internet provides, there’s still one vital tool required to succeed in our industry: Empathy.
I’ve always insisted that empathy is perhaps the most important trait I look for when hiring a team but also one of the things I most prize in myself. Here’s why…
As a young technician, I started in our industry working in regional venues in Melbourne. Anyone who’s treaded these boards and worked in these environments knows the types of clients we saw day in day out. The local schools, the B grade promoters, the regional corporates, the local and community organisations, the dance schools and the occasional state funded touring company. What do all these people have in common? Very little to be honest.
Indeed, that’s the point. Day in day out your working environment could change massively. From a State Theatre company with a full lighting plan and forty venues under their belt, knowing exactly what they want and how to ask for it, to a third grade maths teacher who’s been tasked with directing her classes’ rendition of singing in the rain who wants silver light, square rain drops and ‘can we make the music faster and louder please?’.
Reconciling the two on a daily basis takes patience, practice and empathy.
This is why I still think this is one of the best training grounds possible for young entertainment workers. I was forced on a daily basis to make this jump and it’s made me better at understanding artistic and technical requirements, delivering on promises and ultimately, made me happier at work.
Time and time again, I see technicians getting frustrated with so called “stupid” client requests but I always come back to a core idea: You’re dealing with people who don’t do what we do.
That maths teacher, she teaches maths! You’re the lighting technician, you’re the expert. So rather than getting frustrated or mocking her for her ignorance, help her through it. At the end of the day, she’s not actually demanding specific things, she’s basically crying for assistance,YOUR expert assistance in helping her make this day for her third grade class the highlight of their year.
This simple fact keeps coming back to me day after day, year after year.
Last week I was working with a Fortune 500 company on their global conference here in Dubai. 20 million pixels of LED, a million dollars worth of production, I was show calling and managing a technical crew of 25 and 1,000 delegates from the highest executives of this company’s global offices. (I’m a long way from Mount Eliza Primary School’s end of year show case it would seem).
Ultimately, the principle is the same. I was helping these execs onstage, helping them go through their presentations, taking them to get Mic’d up and showing them which button on the clicker advances their slides, we talked about stings and walk ons, we talked about VT rolls and PIP images but the fact remains – these people don’t do production – I do.
So when one or two executives became a bit agitated or nervous or perhaps were a bit terse with me and my team, I simply reminded myself of that third grade teacher and put myself in their shoes.
They just want the best show possible, they want a good presentation and they want my (and my team’s) help – we’re the experts in the room.
So rather than getting frustrated back, it’s about a bit of empathy and understanding, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Being able to read subtext, understand another person’s point of view and ultimately empathising with their unique needs, fears, desires and stressors as well as understanding their wants and aspirations for the project you’re jointly working on is the single most important skill I think you can have in the industry.
Remember: You’re the expert but not everyone you meet under the blue backstage worklight is…
Also by Tom Warneke:
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