What is empathy
To have empathy in Greek means that you are jealous of someone.
In English, the meaning is: to stand in the shoes of the other. It is ironic how the same world is interpreted differently from one language to another.
Having Empathy, means you are able to understand the other, reach people and make feel better.
Why is it important to develop this ability?
It is no surprise that Forbes places Empathy as one of the core personality traits.
Empathy helps us reach easier solutions. In business, it helps with sales, negotiations and building better teams. In Denmark, the happiest nation in the world, empathy is being taught from an early age in schools. Teachers devote an hour each week for empathy building, discussing with the children about their feeling and their conflicts and all together work to find solutions. This hour
“Klassen Time kage,”
is required for all kids aged 6 to 16. It means “the Class Hour cake”. Students take turns baking a simple cake or snack that they can enjoy together after the talk.
When people feel insecure and unloved in their workspace, they tend to produce less. When they feel that their employer cares for them they produce more. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27618406
“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” —Stephen Covey
Empathy is at the core of innovation. Being empathetic, means we observe and try to understand the people around us. Trying to understand the other offers insights into solutions.
If the population was more empathetic, then we would avoid a lot of conflicts.
According to Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, empathy makes you vulnerable, because you must come down to the level of the other to connect with her.
Empathy declines with the future generation.
According to Goleman focus is linked with the empathy area in the brain. Nowadays we have more distractions than ever. Children are getting their smartphones from a very young age with all the distractive apps that accompany them. Goleman is particularly worried about children exposed to so many distractions, as the brain is the last organ in the body to mature. He supports that if students don’t develop the neural circuitry that focused attention requires, they could have problems with being empathetic.
Goleman has a point. One of the skills of the empathetic person is the ability to listen to the other without being distracted by their own thoughts or smartphone. Most people, we tend to interrupt the other to tell our own stories and opinions. Listening is quite hard.
Broccoli covered with chocolate.
Though empathy is an ability we develop, it is very subtle.
Many times we think we are empathetic when we are not. Adding activities that make us understand when we are not empathetic, makes us more self-aware. It’s not that after an activity we are going to stop being egocentric. It’s a first step of being aware when we are not empathetic.
Why are empathy exercises difficult?
Why are empathy exercises difficult?
The aim of the empathy exercises is to build rapport and affinity between the participants. When it comes to disabilities empathy activities can be tricky. Asking someone to get into the place of a paraplegic can cause pity and fear which is not what we want to achieve.
The last thing a disabled person wants is your pity, or you becoming irrationally afraid that you might become blind.
The ugliest part is when charities use empathy exploitatively for money. They induce your pity. Instead, when planning empathy exercises, you should have an aim for rapport, understanding and work together for solutions.
Aim for understanding, not othering. Aim for the abilities of the other, not their disabilities.
Activities and ideas to cultivate empathy
Understanding a new person makes us step out of our comfort zone. This doesn’t mean that we tell kids to start talking to strangers. It means being curious about the new kid in the school, being curious about the kid that never talks in the next classroom. When children form cliques, is because they are looking for security. This minimizes their worldview.
Some children will find this exercise fun while others will dislike it. Challenge the kids to find something new about a kid in their school. Perhaps which is their favorite food, or game. This doesn’t mean just going straight out to the kid and start asking questions. They have to socialize with the child.
At the end of the challenge, the students gather together and share what they ‘ve learned, and how the meeting changed them. The first time will be hard for children but as time passes, listening to how their other classmates engaged with others, they get ideas as well as approaching new kids.
Caring about each other and wanting to learn more about your classmates
People do their best in an environment that cares about them. Each week allow a few students 15 mins to talk about their greatest weekly successes and their weekly difficulties. This activity will develop empathy fast.
If you want to focus on positivity then you can only speak about good things.
Useful sentences that children can use are:
One good thing in my life is…
Something good that happened is…
Their successes don’t need to be grandiose. For example, they can say how delicious was the chocolate cake their mom made yesterday. This exercise can easily be converted to a gratitude exercise.
A similar but simpler activity is the temperature check with this simple question: How are you feeling today?
The activity is suggested here.
A feeling vocabulary should be introduced to the students for use. Students can discuss in couples. This activity reminds students to be empathetic and also the teacher can spot if a child does not feel well.
Sometimes you might have students that are hard to collaborate in the above activities. They try to turn everything into a joke and constantly interrupt or make fun when other students are talking about how they feel, making the whole situation uncomfortable. In this case, prepare a handout with sentences starting like this:
One thing I like about you…
You are very good at…
I really like your personality because…
Some adjectives that describe you are…
Give each child a handout and have them write their name at the top of the paper. Collect the papers back and then give each child the handout of another child. Each child will have to fill in one or two sentences and then give it to another child (not the child that the handout belongs too).
Give them some time and after they are finished collect the papers and give them back to their owners so they can read the positive stuff their classmates wrote. Make sure to scan the papers in case of bad comments.
To understand empathy the child has to be aware of when someone is being empathetic. Empathy quiz is a great activity for everyone to develop empathy awareness. You read a dialogue between two people and the students have to guess whether this is sympathy, empathy, criticizing, apathy
You give them a card with numbered squares. Each square corresponds to one dialogue. After each dialogue students note down what they think the responder does.
a. I feel terrible today
b. Oh you poor thing
a. I feel so terrible, my dog died.
b. If I were in your position, I would feel the same way
a. My dog died
b. Cheer up. It’s just a dog
a. I ‘ve run out of money.
b. At least you have a home to live. There are people that don’t have to eat.
a. I am overwhelmed
b. Is it bad huh? Do you want some coffee?
Prepare a bookmark or a poster with empathy sentences.
Though it might seem like weird, children don’t know what to say to express their empathy.
I see what you mean.
I can completely understand.
I can help you with that.
I appreciate that you are sharing your thoughts with me.
Thank you for letting me know.
I know what it is like and you are not alone
I don’t know what to say right now but I am glad you told me.
Being empathetic means
Encouraging one to express their thoughts and feelings
Don’t interrupt them
Let them finish
Recognizing their emotion
Staying out of judgment
Ask them if they need help.
Acknowledge what they are saying
Put yourself in their shoes.
Put yourself in their shoes
Conflicts between students are a daily phenomenon in schools. In such cases, a handout with questions should be given to the children that will allow them to stand in the shoes of the other child.
For example: What made the other person act this way?
What other situations influence the other to act this way? (take in mind his/her history).
Allow them 10 minutes to write down their thoughts. Emphasize that the goal is to get into the other’s shoes/ thinking. After writing down their thoughts, discuss their writings together.
Have you filled a bucket today?
Empathy is linked with kindness. Kindness and Empathy are all about taking the other in mind. Respecting and helping. A widely spread children’s book is the “Have you filled a bucket today”. Have small buckets or boxes of kindness for each student where someone can write something good about the other. An example would be: You were awesome at basketball yesterday.
Thank you for helping me with the exercise.
Since children tend to fill the buckets of their friends only, you could give random students’ names to the students and then give them a week to write something good about their classmate and put it into their bucket. You could sit in a circle all the class and read the messages in your buckets.
Chinese cookies of empathy
The same activity could be done with Chinese paper cookies. Have them decorate their paper cookies and add their message to their classmate.
The best phrase that could describe empathy is “psychological hug”
It’s not about which sentence to use but to listen attentively to the other, allow him to speak.
Discuss scenarios with children. The conversation that follows is fictional and the reason is that we give Nicolas empathetic traits which are found in mature people. The reason is we try to make children understand what it is like to be empathetic. We are modeling empathy
Thomas and Nicolas are friends.
Nicolas is going on a holiday with his parents and he can’t wait to tell his friend Thomas about it.
When they meet, Thomas seems to have something very important to say. He starts talking saying: Remember that I told you my mom was sick lately?
“Yes” replied Nicolas.
“Well, it seems she is having a baby!” said Thomas
“Wow! These are great news” replied Nick.
“Yes, I am finally going to have a sibling. Don’t know yet if it’s a sister or a brother. I am hoping for a brother, so we can play.” Nicolas realizes that something is bothering Thomas. He decides that is best to leave the holidays news for later, even though he is pretty excited about it. “Are you ok with the news?” asked Nicolas.
“Well, I am not sure… I am afraid that things might change between me and my parents. I was their only child.” Nicolas replies “I understand, you feel worried that your parents are having a new child”
“Yeah, I am.” “Did you talk to your parents?”
“Mom says she will always love me, so I guess I shouldn’t worry. I am also excited that I am having a sibling. Finally. I hope it’s a boy so I can play with him soccer!” “Anyway boy or girl it is wonderful that you will have a sibling,” replies Nicolas. Nicolas waits a little bit to make sure that Thomas is finished.
Thomas seems satisfied on expressing his thoughts. Nicolas seems ready now to tell his news to Thomas.
Notice how Nicolas did not interrupt, only acknowledge and only ask a question for clarification. He also waited for Thomas to express his thoughts before moving on.
With children, it is harder but empathy can be trained.
There are children who will come complaining or accusing children of not doing that or this. In this case, the handout “put yourself in my shoes” should be given to them.
Let’s take another conversation
Mary comes into the classroom and says to Jenna
“I feel like you are avoiding me. You are not playing with me”
Jenna has two options. She can either deny or ask for clarification
“What do you mean Mary? Can you explain?”
“Oh don’t pretend that you don’t know. Yesterday you were playing with Nicky and Alice and you didn’t tell me to join you”.
Jenna could start objecting, instead, she says:
“Oh, I am sorry Mary. So what you are saying is that you were alone all day yesterday? I didn’t realize it.” She stops. She leaves Mary to continue her thoughts.
“Well, yeah, I guess you didn’t realize it, but I was all day alone… “
“We can play today!” replies Jenna. “Yes, I guess we can” replies Mary
“Again I am sorry Mary”. (Being empathetic requires from Jenna to set aside her ego).
Let’s see another example
Mary is a difficult kid and seems to get disappointed easily with her girlfriends and this can be hard on the girls too.
This is another day that Mary feels bad and doesn’t want to talk or play. She just sits miserably in her seat.
Kelly approaches her. “Is there something wrong Mary?”
“No, It’s ok” replies Mary. Kelly stays there. “You don’t seem well and this makes me feel sad. Is there any way I can help?” In many cases, kids like Mary will still wish to stay silent. This means that Mary does not want to express herself. She just needs time alone. However, let’s assume that she wants to express herself.
“I feel neglected by you and Jenna. You always play together and you give more attention to her”.
Kelly could start to get defensive but she chooses the empathetic route. “I am sorry that you feel this way. Why do you say that?”
“This week you played more times with Jenna”. The truth is that Kelly had invited Mary plenty of times to play but she refused.
“Mary, we told you many times to come and play with us and you refused. Why do you refuse?”
“I told you, I feel that you don’t want me.”
“So you refuse because you think that we don’t want you.” Notice that Kelly doesn’t object, doesn’t ask more, she acknowledges what Mary says.
“Yes, each recess you go out and meet with Jenna and I have to search for you. You don’t wait for me”. Kelly doesn’t interrupt. She waits for Mary to say more. Mary needs to express her feelings. “And when I want to play a specific game, you don’t like it and play another.” Even though that is not completely true, Kelly refrains from interrupting her. “I see what you mean. You feel that we don’t play the games you want” replies Kelly thoughtfully. She waits for Mary to say more. Mary replies with a simple: “I guess… I am not sure”.
It seems that Mary has now gone into reflective mode. Kelly is not defensive so this allows Mary to lower her defenses. She doesn’t continue talking.
Kelly then asks: “What can we do about it? I don’t like seeing you sad.”
Mary already feels better that she hasn’t been criticized. Kelly wants to be a friend to Mary despite their differences and this can be sensed by Mary.
“I am really sorry that you feel this way. Sometimes it happens to me too” says Kelly. Mary already feels better.
“Well, sometimes I overreact. I feel better now”. Notice that Mary is calmer now.
Kelly sees that Mary is in a better mood so she can explain.
“It is just that you came later in the morning and that is why I start playing with Jenna”. “Yeah, I haven’t thought about it” replies Mary.
To avoid new conflicts, it seems that the girls need to decide on which games to play. A good solution would be paper and scissors. Another solution would be to decide on a program where each girl will have her own day to play the game. This is a discussion that follows the empathetic hug. First, it is vital to listen to the other and avoid being judgmental, which is a very very hard skill.
As you may have noticed, the scenarios above show how ideally a child would respond. Not even adults find it easy to respond with empathy. Analyzing dialogues where empathy is being used, can help children and adults respond with empathy.
Happy empathetic exercising!
Margarita Marti is an elementary school teacher with 9 years of experience working at schools. She has an Med in “Creative arts in education”. She wrote and self-published a children’s book called “It’s ok to be different”. Don’t forget to check it out here!