How can we develop #empathy through #storytelling?

Photo: Emad Rahim sharing his story at Southwest University in El Paso, TX.

I am a genocide survivor of the Cambodian Killing Fields. I was born in a concentration camp, the same camp where my father was executed in and where my older brother died of starvation and illness. My family and I came to America as refugees in the early 80s where we were placed in Brooklyn NY, at the height of the crack epidemic and when gang violence was at its peak. When I was 7 years old I walked into a cross fire of a drug deal gone wrong and was shot.

Several years ago my life was turned into a short documentary called Against the Odds and adapted into a theater production titled Tales from the Salt City at Syracuse Stage an equity theater in Upstate New York. The reaction that I received from many of my childhood friends, people that I consider like family, coworkers and even the small group of people that mentored me throughout my life was astonishing. I realized these people knew very little about my life, but through my storytelling project, we learned more about each other and thereby created a more meaningful relationship.

We have created a culture where people don’t talk about their personal life at work, with their neighbors and friends. We introduce ourselves to strangers with our job titles and credentials versus sharing our interest, hobbies, ideas and passion. It is the nuance of our personal experiences that makes us unique and interesting, not our titles and credentials. In order to create positive change in our society and confront community violence, we must be willing to share our story and embrace the personal experiences of others. It is the power of empathy that helps all of us to develop deeper levels of rapport and trust with people in our community.

“Because a human being is endowed with empathy, he violates the natural order if he does not reach out to those who need care. Responding to this empathy, one is in harmony with the order of things, with dharma; otherwise, one is not.” — Dayananda Saraswati

Our stories are powerful tools that can be used to confront social problems. When a personal story is being shared we unconsciously create an emotional connection with the storyteller and empathize with their experience. While we cannot empathize with everyone’s situation and experiences, we gravitate towards certain elements and information from the story itself; like dates, events, images, names and places which resonate in our own lives. This allows us to better understand the emotional makeup of the person that is sharing their story with us and therefore, helps us develop empathy towards people that were once strangers.


In my TEDx Talk, I invited people to invest in the commodity of caring. Shift your focus from the destination to investing in the journey and sincere inquiry about what led to your lives to intersect. Pause, meet, and hold the gaze, their hand, plug in and dare to be vulnerable even though we live in a society of friend and unfriend, hashtags and emoticons — tricking us all into thinking we are really connecting. Sympathy over snapchat, likes for selfies and friendship over Instagram.

Through the power of storytelling, I help people and organizations tackle racism, prejudice, fear, interfaith issues and confront social violence. I have gathered community residents across multiple cities, organized university-wide students group, and rally unions representatives and employees together to engage in dialogue circles using the power of empathy and trust. Our story can be the vehicle used to bring different communities together, to illustrate the power of tolerance and empathy, to inspire and motivate people to take action.

Tell Me Your Story: Empathy to Combat Social Violence | Emad Rahim | TEDxAlbany

Bio: Dr. Emad Rahim currently serve as the Kotouc Endowed Chair at Bellevue University and Fulbright Scholar with the Council for International Exchange of Scholars. His story was adapted into a theatre production titled ‘Tales from the Salt City,’ which is an extension of the acclaimed Undesirable Elements series written by celebrated playwright and Presidential National Medals of Arts Award recipient, Ping Chong. He authored From The Killing Fields to The Boardroom: The SALT Effect and co-authored the book The Inclusive Leader: An Applied Approach to Diversity, Change, and Management.