Writing as empathy

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Cognitive empathy

It turns out that each of these three questions is ultimately about cognitive empathy: that is, understanding the intellectual context of the person you’re talking with. It’s not surprising to find cognitive empathy at the root of editing because it underlies most, if not all, idea-based communication.

The fundamental job of communication is to show people the world in the way the world shows itself to you. If you see business as a type of gladiatorial sport, then that’s the business world you’re trying to reveal to your book’s readers. If you think avocados are overrated, then your essay is going to try to reveal what about them is actually quite disappointing.

This is different from our standard model that says communication is about putting your ideas into other people’s heads. Instead, communication is about revealing something about the world that the other person hasn’t noticed—and often hasn’t been able to notice because their ideas get in the way.

That’s why cognitive empathy is crucial to communication. How can a writer get readers to see the world in a different way if the writer doesn’t have any sense of the readers’ frameworks that provide their coherent view of the world? To enable others to see some aspect of the world the way that you do, you have to also have a sense of how the world already looks to readers.

Turning people to the world as it reveals itself to you, being turned to the world as it reveals itself to others: That is the cognitive empathy that enables communication.

It is also what communication is for. Isn’t it?

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