From my article “Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (3)“:
A study conducted at Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory. found that attentive readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in the narrative as if it were really happening. This type of imaginative engagement with other people—in this case, fictional people—enriches the readers’ experience of the world outside the book. This is because the patient attentiveness required to read a literary novel, a play or a long poem requires us to exercise some of the same mental muscles that are employed when we are attentive to real people.
In both fiction and healthy relationships, we need to be able to extend ourselves into the thoughts and feelings of others, no matter how different those thoughts and feelings may be from our own. We also need a capacity to accept complexity and tolerate ambiguity. This requires the same type of imaginative attentiveness that reading literary fiction can help us to cultivate. This should become clearer after a brief rabbit-trial about communication.
For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others’ struggles, sorrows and joys.
To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up.