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Ed Hooks

Ed Hooks   

Empathy for Actors and Animators

"Performance animation is all about empathy, and we discuss it extensively in every class I teach...To be very clear: you, as an animator, should try to  create an empathetic response for your character."


Lee-Anne interviews Ed 

Transcripts by Edwin

Brings up a  paradox how might we help people be better listeners and not

  • the story telling tells a story and then the listener reacts

  • I agree people can empathize or not

  • I empathic with my wife - it’s easier to empathize with her

  • I have difficulty empathizing with Jihadi john

  • We can empathize and yet those with whom we empathize may not agree that we are empathic to them.

How might we as storytellers, suppress our judgements of Jihadi john, so that we can empathize with him?

  • Aristotle.

  • To play an actor I need to empathize with the person I’m act.

  • As an artist I

How might we extend that capacity of the actor to the general public?

  • empathy needs to be a personal value.. if you don’t

  • politicians say we are different the artist say we are the same

  • I empathize even with people I don’t like - I try all the time.s

How might we expand the value of empathy?

  • zero sum game.. we need non zero sum transactions. everyone wins.

  • how do we get everyone on the street to start empathizing

 Lee-Anne Interviewee Name: Ed

Insight: The zero sum approach to life negatively impacts having empathy for others


  • frustrated,
  • limited, 
  • constrained


  • cooperation.
  • more cooperation less competition


I Like…    Everybody was game.

 Wish…      We had another three hours.  Start where we ended.

What if… What if we took a bathroom break?


Post Workshop Discussion.
Ed, Edwin, Lee-Anne and Mark

You are a treasure, Edwin, truly. 

 I am pleased to be a small part of your circle.  Thanks for the inclusion and the opportunity.

My after-party feeling is that the five of us are not the ones that need to learn about the value of empathy.  

We are each preaching to the choir.  The BIG question is how to connect with the ones that do not care about empathy and who are disinclined to make the effort.  

[Edwin's note: How might we connect with people who do not care about empathy.

Who are the people specifically who are not the the choir? Do you see that as republicans? ISIS? Or who is that?]

One question I should have asked:  "Empathic Design Workshop" implies that we are designing something for a particular intended audience or recipient.  I never was clear who that might be.  I felt like we were talking to each other, but in our own self-imposed vacuum.  The choir, etc.

[Edwin's note:  I hear Ed asking, 'Who is the audience that we are designing the empathy circle for?  

Who are potential audiences or users of the empathy circle?'

I would like to develop the empathy circle as a tool that can be widely used in many situations. I'd like to see every family, having periodic empathy circles with the family members. I hold these empathy circles with my extended family and it has worked really well to foster more connection and understanding.  It's become a safer container where everyone can be fully heard while dealing with family issues and conflicts. 

I'd like to see schools using empathy circles. I'd like to see them in the prisons, at work, in social organization, etc. etc.  How about a room full of empathy circles with the police and community members talking about how the community could design a more empathic, caring creative and innovative community together?

We need ongoing Empathy Practice

I do see the we need to keep practicing empathy ourselves.  I see that from my own personal experience, I need it to give me the ongoing support for flourishing through life, if not to keep me from out and out sinking. To me, saying we don't need to practice empathy on a regular ongoing basis ourselves, is like saying that - if we exercise or work out once,  we will stay fit for the rest of our lives.  Also, that is the folks 'over there' that are the ones that are out of shape and need the exercise and not us.

Just had a thought of, 'What if we put together an article from our Empathy Design workshop?'}


Dear All,

To follow up on our exercise earlier today, I thought it might be useful and pertinent to share with you my concept of "empathy", because it is really very simple.

[A Definition of Empathy]

I see a young woman in Central Park, sitting in the late afternoon on an isolated bench, and I can see immediately that she has been crying.  It is with empathy that I recognize and identify with her feeling of sadness although I know nothing of her personal circumstance.  That, in total, is the use of empathy.  Whether I choose to approach the woman is up to me and involves a lot of contextual considerations. 

[empathy as I understand it is as an integrative quality. Seeing the woman and feeling her sadness is one step. It could go deeper.  Hearing the woman like you would in an empathy circle. Hear her story and experience. She would probably find that very supportive...]

I see empathy as innate and essential to human survival because we must live in groups in order to get the next generation into being safely.  Empathy is the mechanism by which I know that now is not a good time to be mating, and it is the mechanism by which I know to stay away from an angry fellow tribesman. 

[it is also the mechanism by which you sit down with the  angry fellow tribesman and talk about your issues and empathize with each other and work out the problems and come to a shared understanding]

It seems, Le-Anne, that you have a more sophisticated idea about empathy, as something that comes in stages and ultimately includes a deeper understanding of the other person's circumstances.  I would not argue with that other than to say that the move to understanding the other person's circumstances is a conceptual choice, not an automatic factor of empathy.

Mark, when I said that an actor must never deny in himself the potential to behave as the character he is portraying, I was referring to the process of transformation that an actor experiences (ideally).  From an actor's perspective, every character -- indeed, every human -- is the protagonist in his or her own life.  An evil person does not think he is evil.  Although I would never personally never highjack an airplane and crash it into the World Trade Center, I could definitely portray a person that would do it because I know that person considers he is on a mission from God.  My job as an actor is to empathize with the character I am playing.  Acting is sort of like a risk-free flight simulator for emotions.  I get to be a murderer, but without the consequences.  The process of acting is definitely not one in which the actor asks how he might personally behave in the pretend circumstances of the script.  The characters do what they do.  It is the actor's job to inhabit the character, and that process (I agree, Le-Anne, that empathy is a process, BTW) begins with empathy.

Simple, perhaps an over-simplification for the Stanford Design experience, but that is it in a nutshell.  We all empathize all the time.  It comes with the package, unless we are one of the unfortunate broken ones that are incapable of empathy -- autistic, sociopath, that kind of thing.  I believe we can manipulate our willingness - our inclination - to empathize with those around us. But empathy itself is just part of our human equipment.  A necessary part.

I hope this is illuminating just a bit.  Thanks again for the experience.

Hugs -


[Edwin - empathy for me is an integrative process.  It integrates different people with each other. And we can integrate a little, or keep going deeper and deeper.  There's also empathic action where we take action together with a sense of integration.  The action happens as the blocks to action are removed the the parties empathizing more and more with each other.  I see this in mediation. Two or more parties are angry with each other.  There is a big wall up between them.  We can bring them into an empathy circle, ]

People to not understand the immense power of an empathic listening and an empathy circle.  How might we convey the immense power of the empathy circle to people?


Good stuff, Edwin,

 thanks for tossing it up on line.  In response to your response to my response to the design workshop, I am struck by your description of empathy as an "integrative quality".  I suggest a more accurate description would be that empathy "has integrative potential".  As applied to my example of the sad woman on the Central Park bench, I agree with you that she might feel my good-will approach to her on the bench as being "supportive".  Or not.  She may want me to mind my own business.  (We are talking about a Central Park bench, after all. <g>) 

 If I am inclined to reach out to her without being invited, empathy starts double-dipping for me.  Every step I take toward her will alter her emotional response to my approach.  I must evaluate and re-evaluate many times between the moment I first see her crying and the moment I sit by her side.  Empathy will guide me.  It is entirely possible that I might, via empathy, sense that she welcomes my company -- and then, as I come within touching distance, she changes her mind, causing me to back off.

(I do see empathy as ongoing and constantly happening like you mention. We can get better and better at it and create a more supportive society for it.

I'd say, Empathy has integrative potential and is integrative in action. 

 There are issues of trust out on the park bench. She may have a group of friends who have an Empathy Circle every week and she is actually sitting on the park bench waiting for the time to go share with them the sadness she feels about her pet dog that just died. She loved this dog and is so sad that it died.  She hasn't had anyone to talk with about it.  When you go over to talk with her she tells you about the dog and the empathy circle. You tell her you have done an empathy circle as well. She is glad to hear that and invites you along.

You both then go to the empathy circle with her friends in a local cafe and she shares her sadness.  The people in the circle listen and give her space to fully express her feelings and feel heard. They don't sympathize, or try to tell stories about when their dog died, or tell her to get over it, but just listen, are present, and empathize with her. Afterwards she feels much better and feels more connected with her friends and has more hope and can face another day.  She is grateful to everyone and says, "sorrows shared are sorrows halved. Joys shared are joys doubled."

You and the group become lifelong friends and have period Empathy Circles, when you visit NY and online, to connect and support each other.]

As for sitting down and talking with the angry tribesman, I am a pretty brave person by nature, and I would certainly try to do just that.  If he starts fingering the shaft of his knife, however, I'm backing off.  My point is that my physical actions regarding the angry tribesman will be guided by empathy.

[We could have a Restorative Empathy Circle  with you and the tribesman where you both have a dialog together using empathic listening to work out the problems.

To deepen the empathy, you could go deeper into why the guy is angry. What are the feelings and needs underneath the fingering of the knife, is it anger, PTSD, insecurity, etc? That would be deepening the empathy. You listen to each other and work out the problems and become best friends.]

You are painting a picture of a perfect world, I fear, one in which all people will accept the power of good will and an empathetic friend.  That is probably true a lot of the time, but it won't hold true 100 percent of the time.  Therefore, what exactly is the lesson to be learned?  

Would you advise that -- threat be damned -- move on in there with a smile and an empathetic handshake and try to calm the angry tribesman?  I can see a scenario in which I would very probably do that regardless of whether my empathy is sending me alarm signals:  if the angry tribesman is threatening a child, for example, or some helpless person.  I probably would risk injury to myself in an effort to defuse the situation.

You and I are both, I think it is safe to say, "good" people.  We want to be helpful in the world.  We will both endure a lot of hassle and even pain in order to do that.  But this is behavior that springs from our individual values and life experiences.  Our ability to empathize is not the point.  We both do that just fine.  

The big question is:  When empathy lets you know that an emotional trauma is nearby, what does one do about it? 

  • Help out?
  •  Run away?
  •  Stand and watch?  
  • Those are all actions of choice. 
 Empathy qua empathy does not dictate behavior.  It only gives you a reading of the situation.

[I'm working on challenge of 'How might we increase the level of empathy in the world?'

I'm also seeing that empathy can be a way of being in the world.  If we create more empathy in the world, and Empathy Circles is one tool or process for doing that, I feel we will have more capacity to address those traumas.  The healing agent for people who have trauma and PTSD, etc is to be heard, empathy, dialog and human connection. The Empathy Circles are a tool for that. 

Actually -- you know what, Edwin?…. This is a constructive dialogue.  It could be a book.  Much more than an article.  But an article is a good start for sure. 

[a book would be great. I've also thought of an online multimedia empathy wiki).

You are terrific.  As LeAnne said to me at one point during the Design Workshop,  "I see you." <g>



Referring to “the social instinct,” Darwin expressed: “[a]s soon as this virtue is honored and practiced by some few of us it spreads through instruction and example to the young and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion” (Gray, 2015.)

 Darwin's concept of "the social instinct" is now commonly referred to as empathy.  



[Mark: In response to Ed, I would say that by improving our active listening skills and gaining a better understanding of empathy, we will improve how we interact with others.  People model the behavior of others and therefore we can improve reach those who are not part of the choir merely by improving how we interact with others.]

Dear Ed:

Thank you so much for this follow-up email.  While empathy is a passive emotion, it is my understanding that our empathy be shown to the person we are empathic toward.  This is not the same as being compassionate, which is taking it a step further with an action assist them in some way.  The following video from Brene’ Brown is a wonderful example of empathy in action:  
 In any event, as I learned yesterday, we each had different definitions of empathy.
The following article by Daniel Goleman describes three different types of empathy:  
 In any event, as I learned yesterday, we each had different definitions of empathy.

 In any event, as I learned yesterday, we each had different definitions of empathy.

The following article by Daniel Goleman describes three different types of empathy:

I think the reason I often equate empathy with compassion is that I have compassionate empathy, or so I have been told. 

Thank you for sharing how actors use empathy in their work.  I think the reason I made the distinction is because the type of empathy that actors use is cognitive empathy.  While actors may be able to use cognitive empathy in order to take on a role and make it believable, it does not mean that they are empathic people.  The reason I make that distinction was expressed in my article titled

 “Empathy Is Incompatible with Shame and Judgment.

You might find the following article titled “The Science of Ending Conflict”of interest: 




Hey -

I think I may be close to enunciating the distinction between your perception of empathy and mine, Edwin.  This sentence popped into my head a few minutes ago:

"Empathy is an emotional weathervane, not a propeller."

[I'd say Empathy is a process, a need and felt experience.  ]

In other words, empathy is like sticking your head out the window to see if it is raining.  Once you have that information, you make a separate decision about whether or not to go outside and whether or not to take an umbrella.  The information you derive from empathy itself is just that and nothing more -- information.

I also have been reflecting on the Design Workshop, and I think Mark was hitting on a significant point when he tried to draw a distinction between listening-and-repeating and empathizing with feelings.  The entire thing strikes me a quite cerebral.  Paying close attention to what a person is saying in order that you can re-phrase and repeat it back to that person is an intellectual exercise.  Really, empathy has nothing directly to do with it.  When Mark said he thought the exercise was "mis-named", I think he was on to something.

[The process is more 'cerebral', at one level. We do live a lot of our lives at this level when we talk.  The empathy circle and empathic listening can be highly, highly effective at this level. This process alone can unwind deep conflicts, heal people who are in deep psychological problems, maintain and support well-being. etc. 

This is however, only a first step. There are processes that can be added like those from;  

1. the Focusing process. Instead of speaking from your concepts and ideas. You learn and are supported in speaking from your ongoing and emerging felt experience. 

2. There are also steps from the Nonviolent Communication community where the listener supports the speaker by guessing their feelings and needs.

3. There are various role playing activities.  For example we could do that role play of being empathy and rationality dialoging together.

These processes take added training to incorporate. The empathic listening is just an initial step that has the most effectiveness for a being step.

You and I have never talked about it, but I am an author and a long time "reader" for Routledge, a leading educational publisher in London.  They send me manuscripts and proposals of various kinds, for my review and recommendation regarding publication.  Over the years of carrying out this assignment, I have become more discerning about an author's "voice".  A lot of Routledge's books are written by academics, and therein lies a big potential problem.  Academics tend to justify their own existence. 

They can be long-winded and verbose, using five words when one will do.  And they tend to write in a circular fashion, where they make a point and then spend two chapters responding to their own point.  And the point they raised in the first place was one that no regular reader would ever raise.   

I mention this because the subject of "empathy" invites a similar over-intellectualization.  Empathy is an experiential thing, not an academic thing, and it is as direct as sliding your body into a warm bath.  When you try too hard to describe the feeling of sliding into the bath, breaking it down into the feeling you first get in your feet and then your thighs etc, you wind up losing the capacity to experience it.

[I'm hearing there the importance of grounding our words and concepts in a felt experience instead of more words and concept? Am I understanding  that accurately?
If so, I fully agree.]

Anyway …   These things were on my mind this morning, and I wanted to share.

Hugs -


Dear All,

Thanks, Lee-Anne, for the Darwin quote, which I certainly agree with whole-heartedly.  Although I might want to  have a discussion some time about whether or not humans have instincts in the same sense as, say, a hedge hog or a sloth.  I am not convinced that there is such a thing as a "social instinct".  More like a "social imperative", since we have to live in social groups in order to procreate and survive.  We don't group together like prides of lions, for instance.  Our groupings are far more complex, which is where empathy comes into the picture.

Mark, thanks for the empathy-vs.-sympathy animation Ted-X talk and the Daniel Coleman cite.  All of that is interesting and relevant, and I have enjoyed most of Goleman's books. 

The late William Safire used to have a regular page in the Sunday New York Times magazine, in which he tackled tricky language issues.  In September 2008, he said this about Empathy vs. Sympathy:

>> "If you think empathy is the synonym of sympathy, I’m sorry for your confusion. Back to the Greeks: pathos is “emotion.” Sympathy feels pity for another person’s troubles, secondarily a sense of allegiance; empathy identifies with whatever is going on in another’s mind or in a work of art — visual, dramatic, musical — whether merry or morose, hanging loose or uptight. The Greek prefix sym means “together with, alongside”; the verbal prefix em goes deeper, meaning “within, inside.” When you’re sympathetic, your arm goes around the shoulders of others; when you’re empathetic, your mind lines up with what’s going on inside their heads. Big difference; no nuance."

I do not identify empathy as an emotion at all, by the way.  Empathy is more like an emotional barometer, a way of identifying the emotions -- and therefore, the values -- of people around you.  According to Paul Ekman, we humans have seven core emotions -- happy, sad, anger, surprise, fear, contempt and disgust.  We have thousands of "feelings", but only seven core emotions, which can be defined as "automatic value responses".  What makes you feel happy might not make me feel happy.  We have the same emotions, but we have our own unique values. 

In my work, I teach acting internationally.  In China, I run into the influence of Confucius.  They have the same emotions I do over there, but their cultural values are quite different, and they respond in different ways than me.  Same thing in India, except there it is Hinduism.  In fact, the Hindus assert that "wonder", "peace", "courage" and "love" are core emotions.

I don't think there are three different kinds of empathy, with respect to Mr. Goleman.  There is a real tendency to over-intellectualize this entire business of "empathy" because it is innate to us.  During our Design workshop, I said something about the difficulty of thinking about the movement of my feet when I am crossing the room to get something from the fridge.  To me, Mr. Goleman is doing that with empathy. 

Artonin Artaud said that "An actor is an athlete of the heart", an apt description I think.  Emotion drives acting, and empathy is what connects actors to their characters and to the other actors on stage.  Not three different kinds of empathy, just empathy.  I reach over and put my fingers to your cheek, and you react.  I react to your reaction, and you react to my reaction.  Both of us are using empathy.  It is not so complicated.  It is experiential.

This subject is fascinating to me because really smart people disagree so much when discussing it.  I am neither an academic nor a scholar, but I know how to teach acting, and I know how empathy works with acting.  Shakespeare advised that "the actor should hold the mirror up to nature." (Hamlet), and empathy is part of that.  As it works for actors, so it works for humanity.

Or so goes the theory. <g>