Top three reasons coaches should read fiction

Self-reflection: Because literary fiction uses techniques that dislocates our minds and call our attention to strangeness in the world (called foregrounding) that may lead us to be unsettled and look at things differently (defamiliarization) which interacts with stillness which includes self-contemplation and appreciation of art (which I believe is a component of what I’ve called hedgerows) and causes self-reflection.

Empathy: Kidd and Castano: We propose that by prompting readers to take an active writerly role to form representations of characters’ subjective states, literary fiction recruits Theory of Mind. In other words, fiction may increase empathy – both accurately identifying peoples’ emotions cognitively, but also giving us the flexibility to place ourselves in their shoes (affective empathy). There is some indication that reading fiction helps us suspend judgement of others.

Goal Setting: This one surprised me. According to Oatley, narrative fiction constitutes simulation that runs our “planning processor” which is the part of our minds we use in daily life to plan actions in order to attain goals.

The academics have much more work to do, but the more studies they do, the more links they find between reading literary fiction and several of the major pieces we need to become really good motivational listeners.

A researcher named Oatley famously said that “fiction is twice as true as fact”. I believe that this idea is related to my concept of “absolute truth” that by extending our possible world views we broaden truth, rather than narrowing it.

All these papers have one major commonality: they all acknowledge that there isn’t definitive proof of cause. When it comes to encouraging the reading of literature for the sake of improving empathy, some major issues come up. Your personality type, how do you define “literature”, whether your empathic personality predisposes you to reading, or does reading really cause empathy? There are a lot of outstanding questions.

Here’s one more statement I found interesting:

Because fiction gives us a low-threat context, it gives us an optimal aesthetic distance for constructive content simulation.

I in 2011 and 2012 as I finished my first novel, our financial situation was treacherous. (What, you’ve never heard of a first-time novelist who’s broke?) There were days it seemed it would be easier to just ditch everything, get in my car and leave my family behind. It wasn’t that my wife and I were having problems, certainly not that we had fights or marital issues, in general, but perhaps the best way to put it was that I felt pretty strongly that I wasn’t helping our situation, and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t seem to shake that for a long time. The character in that novel named Arnold, who leaves his wife and young children and goes to Alaska, was, for me as a writer, constructive content simulation. I was able to enter the world of a man who leaves his wife (entertain a fantasy, one might say) from a safe aesthetic distance, which allowed me to engage my “planning processor” and think through the ramifications of such activity, experiencing it virtually, without doing something destructive. None of the research I’ve read says anything about writing fiction. But it seems to have done the same thing for me. The immersion for the writer is, in many ways, far deeper than it is for the reader. The writer has to read the work dozens of times over, correcting it for authenticity as much as possible, which means the planning processor mode works overtime.

Sometimes it feels as though that planning processor, like a microchip, is at risk of overheating. It occurs to me now that this sort of overheating may be one cause of writer’s block.

Note: I haven’t included links, but if you want to read some of the papers, just email me.


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The author lives in Goshen, Indiana with his wife and four children. He is self-employed as a leadership coach working with business executives, writers and other artists, and spiritual leaders. His clients enjoy business growth, increased vision and purpose, work/family lifestyle balance, and freedom from writer’s block.

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