The Case For Reading Fiction

To Develop and Fine-Tune Soft Skills: Case Study 1 #Empathy

Aisling has worked for several years as a WorkLife Coach and Learning Practitioner. She has been through many economic downturns, which have always brought about cuts to learning budgets. 

Through this, she learnt the one thing in life that can never be taken away from you in your learning. Through this, she discovered her WorkLife Mission: To help people pursue their WorkLives with greater clarity, purpose, passion and pride by creating continuous WorkLife learning programmes and resources that are accessible to everyone. Through this, she came to value and appreciate the importance of reading to help her learning – well, actually, that wasn’t a new discovery. – That’s because reading has always been her go-to-place for learning. In her WorkLife, reading helps her to understand people and situations. That’s because it draws her into imagining a character’s situation, which helps her relate at a deeper level to people in real life. 

Aisling’s love of reading had prompted her to write stories in which she shared the wisdom she had taken from books and how she had applied this to her WorkLife learning to help her navigate through problems and challenging situations. 

Aisling had an idea that this could be taken further. To clarify her thinking, she pondered two questions:

1. What if people who enjoy learning through reading and who also enjoy discussing books could come together to share their experiences?

2. What if people who enjoy learning through reading and who also enjoy discussing books and interesting stories could come together to share their experiences?

Aisling’s questions led to the formation of two WorkLife Book Clubs.


For the first club, which was in response to Question 1: to help get things started, Aisling compiled questions for the members to ponder while reading the book. These questions could also be used to structure the discussion – if needed.

You will find the questions at the bottom of this story. Titled Questions To Ponder, which are from my book WorkLife Book Club

For the second club, which was in response to Question 2: Aisling, researched and developed a Learning Through Reading series, creating stories inspired by real WorkLife stories and events. The stories are presented as case studies for group discussion, which, together with the accompanying recommended book, would be required reading for each meeting and would help to frame the subsequent discussion.

Both WorkLife Book Club models were successful. The reasons for this were two-fold:

  1. For social interaction and connectivity, people coming together over a shared interest in reading.
  2. To apply learning from literature to everyday WorkLife.

The Book Clubs had validated Aisling’s idea. She was happy about that. 

Aisling wanted to develop her idea of the benefits of learning through reading further.

As a WorkLife Learning Practitioner, her focus of work is on Soft Skills development, which she describes as being a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, emotional intelligence, personable attributes and traits – skills that make it easy to get along and work well with other people.

Aisling’s idea was to focus on one important soft skill to begin. That was #Empathy, a key element of emotional intelligence.

She believes this skill, as with many soft skills, is valuable and yet difficult to define. She believes it’s a trait that will serve individuals well in their WorkLife, but it can be challenging to demonstrate in interviews and yet it is a characteristic that organisations are looking for in the people they hope to attract and retain. 

To clarify her thinking, she pondered the question:


What if reading fiction could be used to develop greater empathy?

Aisling’s idea was that fiction books could help develop and fine-tune empathy in a way that non-fiction – How To / Self Help books could not. She thought this because she believed that you can’t explain to someone how to be empathetic or even why they should be empathetic. She believed that people learn to care through stories. Her idea was that reading fictional stories would help people’s ability to understand how others feel. 

Aisling’s question led to the formation of a Workplace based WorkLife Book Club. 

She brought six people who enjoyed reading and who also enjoyed discussing books together – Conor, Amy Sajid, Bella, Mo, and Flor. The idea was that each of the group would take it in turns to suggest a fiction book that interested them as an authentic way of having a shared experience through an engaging text and discussion. That was it. She decided to keep the setup very simple.

WorkLife Book Wisdom

Conor chose the first book: Twelve Angry Men, by Reginald Rose. Having seen the film version of the book, he thought that the story is a classic story of empathy, and he was curious about how the book club group would relate to the group of jurors.

On reading the book, It struck him how difficult it was for the jurors to get from a place of hard, uncaring thinking to a place where they began to soften their minds and hearts to begin to care. While he considered the case that the jury was discussing to be an extreme case and one that people in everyday WorkLife were unlikely to be presented with, he questioned if their behaviours represented the truth of empathy in an everyday WorkLife situation. 

This was the burning question he posed to get the discussion underway.

Does the case in the book represent an everyday WorkLife case or situation?

Here is a sense of the group’s thinking and discussion:


Amy found it interesting that juror Eight, the only juror to vote ‘not guilty’ at the outset, based his decision on the conviction of a feeling that something wasn’t right. She felt that was brave. But she questioned how willing he was to accept defeat and surrender if when he suggested a secret second vote ballot from which he would abstain and concede his doubt and vote guilty if that brought back and unanimous guilty vote.

Sajid likened the secret ballot to the culture of open, honest discussion they’re striving to achieve at their organisation, saying as much as he has opposed anonymous feedback because he believes people should be supported in saying what they want and need to say openly and feel safe in doing so, that as in the secret ballot, anonymous feedback protects the person who is willing to disagree with others and go against the popular vote.

Bella talked about how jurors Three and Seven targeted Juror Five as being the one who changed his vote, because of his age they believed he identified with the accused, and this made him a vulnerable target to their accusatory bullying behaviour. 

Mo believed that what made juror Nine stand out was that he spoke up and said he was the one who changed his vote to protect juror Five from those unsubstantiated attacks. In changing his vote, he also demonstrated solidarity with juror Eight, who was courageous in standing alone. Juror Nine showed not only a generosity of spirit but also, together with juror Eight, an awareness that a life was at stake – something that the other ten jurors did not.

Flor said juror Eleven also stood up for juror Five when he was under attack and said that’s representative of everyday WorkLife in how people will stand up for each other against bullies and how bullies will then stand down. She said the power of one person taking a stand, whether it’s juror Eight willing to vote differently, or its juror Nine owning his vote or juror Eleven standing up for juror Five, that the actions of one person can cause a ripple effect within any group of people. 

Conor mentioned how the jurors’ personalities are demonstrated through their exchanges – from self-absorbed to impatient to aloof to vindictive to rational to level-headed, and that each of the juror’s backgrounds influenced them to either instinctively believe or distrust the accused. 

As with the discussion in the book, the longer the WorkLife Book Club discussion went on, the more it opened up the group’s thinking to Conor’s burning question:

Does the case in the book represent an everyday WorkLife case or situation?

Amy liked how the ‘hot room’ played a role in demonstrating how when strong personalities are in a room together; they struggle to agree over even the most innocent of discussions, such as whether to keep the window open or closed. 

Sajid mentioned how juror Eight had the ability to bring other possibilities to light and how his words played a part in persuading some of the jurors to change their vote because he was presenting a rational argument and raising awareness of there being reasonable doubt.

Bella believed it was the emotion behind the words that some of the jurors were more swayed by, demonstrating some votes were emotional and not rational. 

Mo thought it was interesting when juror Two explained that he changed his mind because juror Eight was calm and confident, and juror Three was angry and insulting—leading juror Four to point out that these considerations do not change the guilt of the accused.

Flor said there were different types of bias at play: Juror Ten is revealed as someone who sees all poor people as inherently untrustworthy. Juror Eight reveals his sympathy for slum kids and sees all poor people as deserving of sympathy because they’ve suffered at the hands of society. 

Conor believed there were also different types of thinking at play: Juror Four thinks each person is responsible for his actions regardless of his situation, but Juror Eleven understands the negative impacts of mistreatment.

And so the discussion continued.

Epilogue

Towards the end, Conor brought the group back to the burning question he had begun the discussion with:

Does the case in the book represent an everyday WorkLife case or situation?

The group unanimously agreed it did. They admitted, as with the jury, at the beginning of their discussion, it wasn’t so clear cut, but as they continued to talk through the case in the book and got to know each of the jurors – their personalities, their motives, their thinking, their backgrounds, that they saw how they were representative of people in everyday WorkLife. And while they may not experience a situation as grave as the case in the book, the discussion allowed them to see the jurors first and foremost as human beings, capable of strengths and flaws, impartiality and prejudices. And that they believed was the same in all WorkLife situations.

This WorkLife Book Club model was also successful. 

Words of Wisdom

The feedback from the group was that the experience of reading and discussing a fiction book had helped develop and fine-tune their empathy. This was because they believed having been able to tap into the feelings of the characters in the book, they felt this would help them be more attuned to their colleague’s feelings in everyday WorkLife situations and have greater empathy because of that.

Aisling was happy about this. 

And, of course, she wanted to develop her idea of the benefits of learning through reading even further. There were, after all, many soft skills she believed reading fiction could cultivate. 

But that’s a story for another day. – Or actually several stories for several other days.

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QUESTIONS TO PONDER (From WorkLife Book Club by Carmel O’ Reilly)

What are the main themes of the story? 

What are the underlying themes of the story? 

Can I connect to aspects of the story through my WorkLife story? (my experiences) 

Do I have thoughts and emotions that are consistent with the storyline? Am I having emotional responses and insights into the character’s emotions? 

Are there valid and competing viewpoints that I find interesting?
Was there anything that caused me to look at things differently?
Has anything brought about thoughts or ideas for change?
Has anything brought about thoughts or ideas for remaining constant? Does the reading apply to my WorkLife? If so, how? 

Does the reading apply to my organisation/network? If so, how? 

What did I enjoy about the book? 

What did I enjoy about the case study? 

What was my impression of the protagonist of the story? (sometimes, there can be more than one protagonist) 

What was my impression of the antagonist of the story? (sometimes, there can be more than one antagonist) 

What were the struggles and successes for the protagonist? 

How did the book wisdom help the protagonist? 

Were there support characters? If so, what was my impression of them? 

Who were the heroes in the story? (heroes can sometimes be abstract, e.g. circumstances) 

Who were the villains in the story? (villains can sometimes be abstract, e.g. circumstances) 

What piqued my curiosity?
Where did the reading take my imagination? 

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Aisling’s story was featured in my book WorkLife Book Club Volume One Shoreditch. Her continuing story was inspired by the Harvard article: https://hbr.org/2020/03/the-case-for-reading-fiction

The book discussion was inspired by a summary of 12 Angry Men on LitCharts.

This story is part of a series of stories that share insights into the characters in my book, WorkLife Book Club Volume One Shoreditch  Stories that share insights that aren’t shared in the book to the main characters, the support characters and the behind the scenes characters. While the characters in the stories are not based on real people, they are representative of the people who are an integral part of Shoreditch life, the neighbourhood I live in, which is full of people with different WorkLife experiences. 

Shoreditch is a special place, and I believe what makes it so is the incredible diversity of life paths that cross here, spanning the whole globe and many walks of life.

You may also like my Learning Through Reading Series: A collection of stories inspired by real WorkLife struggles and successes presented as case studies for group discussion. The case and the recommended book are the required reading for each book club meeting and help frame the subsequent discussion.

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Published by Carmel O' Reilly

Carmel O’ Reilly: WorkLife Learning Practitioner & Writer Author of WorkLife Book Club, Your WorkLife Your Way and The School of WorkLife book series. Created to help you manage your WorkLife Learning. Blogger & Podcaster: Telling people’s powerful stories about WorkLife challenges & successes Founder of www.schoolofworklife.com My guiding statement is to help people pursue their WorkLives with greater clarity, passion, purpose and pride by creating continuous WorkLife learning programmes that are accessible to everyone.