Building empathy through music

I’m on a mission to do more experiments and to celebrate the inevitable failuresthat will occur. I’d like to share one of the experiments I did last week.

Picture this: two people sitting side by side on a bench in the woods, a few minutes walk from the office. In between them a mobile phone, playing a song that one of them (the “submitter”) has selected. The song has some emotional meaning to the submitter. They both silently listen to the song, concentrating on the emotions that they experience in the moment. When the song is finished, the other person (the “recipient”) talks about the emotions he or she experienced and compares that to the submitter’s emotional connection with the song. Will the recipient be able to experience the same emotions just by listening empathetically?

Sitting side by side on a bench (Photo by  Kelly Sikkema  on  Unsplash )

Sitting side by side on a bench (Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)

The experiment was triggered by a discussion about my experiences with back to back listening, both at the Liberating Structures Global Gathering in March and at the Immersion Workshop in May. We wondered if it could also be used to feel the emotions of the other person, particularly if the song was significant to them. Since we were worried what other people would say or think if they saw us standing back to back for several minutes, we went outside and tried it just by sitting next to each other, without physical contact.

We first tried a song with which I have a strong emotional link: “Let Him Fly” by the Dixie Chicks. The emotional change when we played the song was strong and my experimentation partner clearly identified what the emotion was. She could also relate it to one of the two significant events in my life that I associate it with.

Nightswimming (Photo by  Emilio Machado  on  Unsplash )

Nightswimming (Photo by Emilio Machado on Unsplash)

Next we switched. My experimentation partner chose a song that was significant for her, but had less of an emotional load: REM’s “Nightswimming”. I struggled to identify the emotion. At first I experienced happiness, like a happy memory of an event or a holiday. But after that my own emotions and rational thoughts about the lyrics crowded in.

So what have I learned from this? I’m not completely sure yet. I don’t know if the second attempt didn’t work so well because it was a song with less emotional load, or because I’m not so good at sensing the emotion. I do know that it was an enjoyable experience (for me at least), and that discussing the songs and the emotions they stir up made me feel heard and respected. I still want to try this while standing back to back, but I’ll have to get over my fear of being misunderstood by others, particularly in the wake of #MeToo.

One take away for me is: just taking time out to explore emotions in a peaceful setting with another compassionate human being was very soothing. That in itself made it a worthwhile experiment. I am deeply grateful to my experimentation partner for doing this with me.