How Professional Magicians Use Empathy

27 Sep How Professional Magicians Use Empathy (And What You Can Learn from Them)

If you were to go back in time to 1998 (the year I started practicing magic) and ask me what skills I thought I might pick up through my new hobby, I imagine I’d have responded with this list:

  • Manual Dexterity
  • Showmanship
  • Persistence

To be sure, I did indeed learn all those skills and more. But I also got an unexpected bonus – empathy.

In fact, empathy is the most powerful and useful of all the skills that I’ve acquired over the past 19 years of performing magic.

Think about it – the performance of magic must start with empathy. In order to present a convincing illusion, the magician has to imagine what the trick will look like from the audience’s perspective.

Magic is all about creating an experience in the minds of others. Not only do magicians need to be able to stand in someone else’s shoes, they need to get right inside their heads. In order to do that, empathy is a skill that needs to be cultivated and practiced.

For example, if I want you to believe that a coin materialized out of thin air, I need to consider your point of view. Not just your physical point of view, but your mental point of view. That’s why performing magic for children takes a completely different approach than performing magic for adults. Kids just have a different way of looking at the world than adults, and if you want to fool them, you have to think like they do.

No matter what your profession, empathy is a critical job skill. It allows you to step outside of your own head and imagine each situation from another’s point of view. This is obviously crucial for roles like salesperson and managers, but it’s important for all members of a team. In fact, many sources state that empathy is the number 1 job skill as we move into the future of work.

I’ve been using magic in my workshops and keynote addresses for the past 15 years. It’s a powerful tool partly because it immediately hooks an audience with a sense of wonder and awe. At the same time, it helps me illustrate ideas and techniques that would be difficult to express with words alone. It’s one thing to talk about how important it is to see things from your colleague’s point of view, but it’s another thing altogether to show it. (be sure to watch the video below to see what I’m talking about)

And the longer I use this tool to teach communication and leadership skills, the more I realize that empathy is the most valuable thing I can share.

Here are 3 reasons professional magicians must have empathy and what you can learn from them.

1. Empathy is a Form of Mind Reading

To be successful, a magician MUST be able to put themselves in the shoes of the audience member to understand what they will see and how they might feel.

Long before the performance, the magician needs to visualize the effect he or she wants to create in the minds of the audience. Not only what the illusion will be, but how it will make the audience feel.  Without empathy, a magician can perform an amazing illusion but do so in a way that belittles the audience. That can quickly turn an audience against the performer.

(This might sound like your last team meeting…)

On the other hand, if the magician taps into empathy, he can craft a presentation that will not only create the illusion of impossibility, it will create a feeling of awe and wonder. It’s almost like you’re able to get inside the minds of the audience and manipulate reality.  (It’s a good thing I don’t use my powers for evil.)

Perspective matters.

Here’s an example of what I mean…

2. Empathy Creates Trust

I can’t tell you how often people jokingly check their wallets and watches after meeting me for the first time. Magicians struggle with being trusted, and that’s to be expected. When I say I’m a magician, I’m basically saying, “I’m going to lie to you.” Deceit is implicit in the job title, so it’s not surprising that people often mistrust magicians.

(Some would say the same thing about old-school salesmen.)

I need to overcome that distrust if I want to achieve my goal of creating wonder.

There are specific actions I can do to start creating trust. First, I need to imagine what the other person is thinking and feeling. In order to take someone where you want them to go, first you have to meet them where they are.

I often approach this with humor. I joke about the fact that magicians are, by nature, liars.  By showing that I understand their perspective, I start to diffuse their skepticism. Then I build upon it, saying, ‘the difference is that I’m lying for your benefit. I’m going to lie right to your face, and you’re going to thank me for it.”

That starts to create a connection. They see that I understand their fear of deceit and that I’ll act with their best interests in mind.

The same thing is true at work. Your ‘audience’ may be a prospect, a co-worker or a boss. Since much of communication is designed to be persuasive, you need to understand where they are coming from before you can take them where you want them to be.

It’s important to remember that empathy is the real skill here, and it’s applicable to all roles at work and all walks of life. You need to not only be able to understand what it feels like from their perspective, but to express that in such a way that they feel understood. This builds trust and lays the foundation for a real connection.

3. Empathy Gives Them What They Want and Need

The best magic is not about the magician – it’s about the audience.

No one cares how much time the magician has spent practicing. No one cares how much he spent on the latest magic prop. No one cares about his membership in an arcane members-only magic club.

They only care about what the magician can do for them. They care about their own experience.

While I do I love being the center of attention, I don’t want my magic to be about me. I’d rather share that attention with the audience – to make it an experience about us.

As the center of attention, I’m like a disco ball. Yes, I’m the focal point and the light is shining on me. But my job is to take that light of attention and turn it back on the audience. I want to help them share in the light and, by doing so, create a shared experience of wonder.

That’s why I’m constantly asking myself, ‘what does the audience need and how I can give it to them?’

Does my audience want to laugh? Be inspired? Feel awed?

By putting myself in their shoes, I’m able to give them exactly what they want. That’s the core of empathy.

How you can apply these things to your work (even if you’re not a magician!)

You may wonder what any of this has to do with you.

If you look closely at the three magical powers of empathy above, you’ll see that they’re all metaphors.

  1. Empathy will allow you to understand how other people view you
  2. Knowing this will allow you to connect with them
  3. This will make them (and you) happier

In the past, I’ve written about how empathy makes you a better leader, but here’s a small secret: it doesn’t matter what you do or who you are, being more empathetic will change your life for the better.

By putting yourself in their shoes, you’ll be able to connect better with your audiences, colleagues, and employees. You’ll also become a better partner, parent, and employee.

People will trust you more, and you’ll forge stronger bonds with everyone around you. This will help your work gain new meaning.

So what can you actually do to become more empathetic? Here are five suggestions.

  1. Harness the power of vulnerability: Make yourself vulnerable to invite people to trust you more.
  2. Listen to others: Take the time to observe and listen to others to know what they want and need.
  3. Practice mindfulness: Tune-in to the present moment to fully engage with the people around you.
  4. Create common goals: Work with others to come up with shared goals. This will encourage everyone to work together.
  5. Exercise your passions: Being passionate about what you do will set an example and help you connect with others.

It’s Up To You To Make It All About Them

Being more empathetic will help you become a better professional, a better team member, and a better person. It’s not difficult, but it will take some effort. Here are three ways to build your empathy:

  1. Listen – When it comes to conversation style, many of us aren’t really listening, we’re waiting to talk. One way to increase your empathy is to rein in that tendency and actually tune into the other person’s words. Focus not only on what they are saying, but also on how they are saying it.
  2. Clarify – After you’ve heard their story, take the time to be sure you understand their intended meaning. Ask clarifying questions to be sure you received the same meaning and intentions they were trying to communicate.
  3. Suspend Judgement – When talking with another person, most people immediately and unconsciously judge what they hear. It’s a natural reaction, built upon years of experience and evolution. But judgement is not always useful. In fact, it can cause big problems. To combat this, make a conscious effort to simply take in what the other person is saying. Picture yourself as a silent, unemotional statue, simply hearing the words, void of judgement. You can always judge later, but at first, strive to simply hear and understand.

You’ll find that people will notice when you take the time to truly understand their point of view. They’ll feel your empathy and may eventually start to exhibit the same behaviours when dealing with you. Either way, you’ll be able to react and make decisions based not on your own self interests, but with others’ well being in mind.

Make sure you check out 5 Powerful Positive Psychology Hacks To Transform Your Team for some great techniques that you can use.

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