Coaching the Artist Within: Practice Empathy

We should practice empathy not because it is the best sales tactic, but because it is the honorable way to relate to other human beings. ~ Eric Maisel

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There are two completely different ways to conceptualize how you might relate to your potential collectors. One is to picture buyers as people who deserve to be manipulated and must be reached by virtue of sales tactics that play on human weaknesses, such as greed and envy. The other is to picture buyers as your fellow human beings who can be met without manipulation and without trickery.

If the question is, “Which way garners better results?” then sadly enough, the answer is probably the first. But if the question is “How do you want to live your life?” then the answer is surely by practicing the second in large measure — by practicing empathy and championing the principle that people do not exist to be manipulated.

“Empathy” is a word from developmental psychology and has to do with the results of better or worse parenting. If our parents were genuinely responsive to our needs, it is likely that we developed an ability to empathize with others. But millions of people, perhaps even the vast majority, had poorer experiences that resulted in lifelong relational difficulties. Yet even if they had poorer experiences in childhood, it is their job in adulthood to heal those wounds and make conscious decisions to treat the people around them decently.

“Practicing empathy” means developing your personality sufficiently enough to see people as real human beings with needs, desires and a point of view, rather than as props in your personal play. If you are a parent, it means treating your children as individuals and not your property. If you are a teacher, it means providing feedback in a humane and careful way, not in a cruel and toxic way just because you possess the authority. If you are a soldier, it means understanding that the people you may kill are human beings and not characters in a video game. To put it simply, it means adopting the Golden Rule as a guiding principle.

This principle may not fair as well as unbridled self-interest when it comes to getting you what you want. I know someone who tends to get her way in her business life because she talks nonstop, arguing her position with such seamless ferocity that you have no chance to voice an objection or present your side of the story. As a result, she does very well. She gets without giving, has you do her work, increases her share and reduces your share, and nicely grows her business.

Ordinary people are relatively defenseless against the extraordinarily resolute manipulations of the “business sociopath.” But while we may have great trouble protecting ourselves from them or dealing sensibly with them, that doesn’t mean that we ought to become them. We should practice empathy not because it is the best sales tactic, but because it is the honorable way to relate to other human beings. It is the way we make ourselves proud. And it doesn’t preclude sales. It does, however, reduce the number of tactics we use as we go about the business of selling our art, a reality we embrace because we understand that ethics is just an empty word, if we let it be.

Say you have produced a new series of 12 paintings. There are a number of sales tactics you could use if you weren’t practicing empathy: telling everyone that there is only one painting left and that they must hurry, even though in actuality all 12 remain; telling everyone that the Prince of Prussia has purchased three and that the Queen of Sheba is about to snatch up the rest; calling up two collectors and telling each that the other is about to grab Number 3, the very best painting in the series; knowing that the series is weak and touting it as great; talking befuddled little old men and little old ladies into buying.

All of these tactics are practiced in business, and they work. But they are not the only ways to deal with other human beings. You can be as energetic, powerful and assertive as you like and still practice empathy. You can advocate for your new paintings with great gusto by telling everyone that they exist, by making phone calls and sending out emails about the work, by approaching everyone on your contact list, by asking your friend John if he will bring your paintings to the attention of a gallery owned by someone he knows (but not demanding he do so), by articulating the virtues of the works and doing an excellent job of expressing their value. You can sell with great enthusiasm while minding the rights of others.

Yes, you may dismiss many sales tactics, but countless other avenues requiring no more than your energy and business acumen are open to you. So practice empathy in your own life, and treat potential customers and marketplace players the way you would like to be treated.


Eric Maisel is America’s foremost creativity coach and the author of more than 40 books including Coaching the Artist Within, Fearless Creating, The Van Gogh Blues, and Mastering Creative Anxiety. His latest book is Making Your Creative Mark: Nine Keys To Achieving Your Artistic Goals. Also available is Dr. Maisel’s Your Best Life in the Arts audio class with the Academy For Optimal Living. You can visit Dr. Maisel at or contact him at [email protected].