By LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed.
The Power Tools for Connecting and Moving People Forward Faster
“Atticus was right! One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”
Scout Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
“Walk in a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.”
Native American Proverb
Did you know the more stressed-out we feel, the less empathy we might show toward others?
This allows a vicious cycle to start and continue: When stress in our lives increases, and we believe it to harm us, empathy towards others can decrease (Sapolsky, 2015).
If more people showed and received empathy, or the “social glue,” toward one another, people might perceive their stressors and life differently. They could respond more positively to their daily stressors and to those of others. We can turn this negative cycle into a positive one.
It can start with just one person – the power of one!
Can you imagine a place where everyone has been coached to demonstrate empathy— where it is ingrained into everyone as the first, natural response towards others?
I want to live and work in such a place, that is for sure!
According to Dr. Michele Borba, author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World (2016):
- Teens are now 40% less empathetic than 30 years ago
- Narcissism has increased 58%
Youth bullying has increased 52% between 2003 and 2007, and we see evidence of bullying as young as age three (Shetgiri, Lin, and Flores, 2011). She found that around the year 2000, the Empathy Dip occurred possibly because of the “Selfie Syndrome” – defined as a focus on “me” rather than “we.”
In order to have more empathy-centered schools, we are going to have to take action now!
Fortunately, no matter how old we are, we can learn the skills that lead to empathy and “empathy will most likely flower on a collective scale if its seeds are planted” among our youth (Krznaric, 2012).
Jeffrey Benson, author of Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most, wrote the following in his blog about radical empathy in our schools:
“There are many hurdles to safely clear from the morning until the school doors close behind us in the afternoon. In most cases, there are just too many people crowded into the hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias. The pace is unnatural. The workload is consistently over the limit of what is reasonable. The rewards are not consistently robust and often they lie at a distant horizon. The critical judgments of peers, authorities, and society are omnipresent. It is no wonder we often push open that schoolhouse door with unease. Students, teachers, staff, administrators, parents–we really are all in it together… I want us to recognize the shared frustrations, hopes, and feelings of every person in the school.”
War, domestic violence, abuse, and other horrible situations are rooted in a lack of empathy. Without empathy, we destroy each other. Actually, we live in a world where people destroy one another simply because they don’t agree. We live in a world where eye contact is not as important as it once was, and this is a problem since eye contact is how to learn the feelings of others.
This emotional literacy is the path to empathy.
Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence (2012) says,
“A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.”
Empathic skills allow the giver of empathy to “read minds” by listening to a person’s words, watching the body language and the eyes of the person speaking, and connecting these two to the schema or background knowledge in order to understand where a person is coming from.
Thomas Hoerr (2017) writes in his book, The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs,
“From the Crusades, to slavery, to the Holocaust, the history of humankind is littered with examples of mass lack of empathy resulting in cruelty to others and the persecution of different groups. Without empathy, we tend to divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ which leads to suspicion, miscommunication, and conflict. Bullying results from a lack of empathy.…”
Understanding how to empathize and muster the courage to display it is even more important right now.
Learning and portraying empathy starts when infants are born and it needs to be explicitly taught in our schools and homes. My hope is every educator reading this article will start to practice empathy-centered strategies so that it could be contagious empathy — affecting entire classrooms, schools, households, and communities.
Empathy should be central in all classrooms by integrating the skills and stories of empathy into daily lessons, as well as by impromptu, teachable moments. It should be modeled, noticed, celebrated, broken into steps or subskills, and integrated into all subject areas. If administrators, teachers, parents, and students were more empathetic, schools would function better and achieve more than ever imagined. After all, empathy is the glue that builds trust and lasting, healthy, positive relationships.
What Is Empathy?
Collins English Dictionary defines empathy as:
“The psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”
My favorite description of empathy comes from Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009). He says,
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”
Did you notice multiple steps in the latter definition? In other words, we must listen deeply to understand someone’s perspective and identify emotionally with him/her. We must think about the situation to let that understanding guide our compassionate actions. While we listen and think, we might create clarifying questions to improve our understanding and/or create paraphrasing statements to show our understanding. During this conversation, we are “mirroring” that person’s feelings with our words, tone, and nonverbals. fMRIs show that when we recognize an emotion in someone else, our brains actually generate that same neuron pattern and feeling. Mirror neurons allow this to happen and we actually simulate, or “mirror,” the other person’s emotional state (Scientific American).
These steps show how empathy has three sides: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Notice these definitions do not imply that we must change our perspectives to be empathetic. In fact, you can completely disagree with someone and still portray empathy. Some people who have “faked empathy” towards someone that they didn’t feel deserved it said they eventually, truly were able to get into that person’s shoes and feel the authentic empathy. . .
Let’s go a little deeper into the three elements of empathy. Cognitive empathy involves attaching a label to someone’s feelings and inferring another person’s thoughts. For example,
“That person is slumping and frowning…I wonder if he is tired or depressed?”
Schools are calling this learned skill “emotional literacy.” Educators need to explicitly teach this emotional inferring skill. Cognitive empathy is also called “perspective smart” because one must think about how to respond to someone’s feelings and then suspend judgments.
Emotional empathy is when we feel what another person feels. For true empathy to occur, we must visualize ourselves in a person’s situation and listen so attentively that we create a clear picture in our minds—to feel the emotion that person describes and displays. A synonym for this type of empathy is “emotional contagion,” since the other person’s feelings become almost contagious to the empathizer. This type of empathy is powerful and such a plus to friends, parents, teachers, caregivers, and leaders in any situation. As a result, the person who shares his/her thoughts and stories feels validated, listened to, and loved.
Finally, compassionate empathy is the icing on the cake. Yes, we need the first two types to master empathy, but without compassion, the world would not be a better place when something goes wrong. Through compassion, we can take timely action to help. Compassionate empathy moves us to help or serve others during their pains or troubles.
Empathy is the heart and foundation of emotional intelligence. One of our deepest needs is to be understood. Daniel Goleman says we can develop emotional intelligence. In other words, we can learn, practice, and eventually master it.
Emotional intelligence is broken into four main categories: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. They build on each other. The foundation is understanding ourselves (self-awareness), knowing how we come across to others and why we feel certain ways. If we understand ourselves and learn tools to manage our actions, then we are on the road to better self-management. If we manage and understand ourselves well, social awareness is easier —understanding unspoken emotions in others. Finally, we can be aware of groups of people. We can see how our emotions affect a group. We call this final category relationship management.
The heart of practicing empathy is through social awareness. Empathetic leaders can attune to a wide range of emotional cues, letting them sense unspoken emotions. An empathy-centered person can get along with diverse groups of people, no matter their differences, and this is greatly needed in our diverse country and schools.
“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”
Empathy vs. Sympathy
Empathy is different from sympathy. Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly (2012) writes,
“Empathy fuels connections; sympathy drives disconnection.”
Remember, empathy is understanding what someone else feels because we can put ourselves in that person’s place or we have actually experienced it. Empathy is focused on understanding and it’s a choice to deeply dip into your heart to connect with this person’s experience. Sympathy is acknowledging a person’s emotional hardships and trying to provide comfort and assurance by showing pity or sorrow. Notice the verbs: understanding and connecting versus acknowledging. There is a huge difference in the level of commitment.
Sympathy doesn’t have the shared feeling and experience component like empathy does. Sympathy can lead to empathy, but not always. And finally, compassion is the expression of empathy and the ultimate altruistic behavior – it’s the fulfillment of empathy.
Since empathy is a learned skill, how can we teach it and help children develop it? Fortunately, even a narcissist, a very self-focused unempathetic person, can learn how to become more empathetic.
How is Empathy Developed?
Empathy is developed over time, in different ways, based on the environment and ages of children (Radke-Yarrow & Zahn-Waxler, 1984). Psychologists believe we are hard-wired for empathy, born with the ability to portray it. Yet, it is also shaped by a person’s experiences and culture. Those who experience strong attachment relationships in the first two years of life are heavily primed for empathy. Exposure to media violence can desensitize people and decrease the brain’s response to secondhand pain (Guo et al., 2013).
A study published in Journal of Neuroscience on October 9, 2013, by Max Planck found our brains have an innate tendency to be egocentric, but the right supramarginal gyrus (part of the cerebral cortex and located at the junction of parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes) recognizes this lack of empathy and “autocorrects.” The supramarginal gyrus helps people to distinguish their own emotional states of mind from others. It’s responsible for empathy and compassion. It allows us to separate our perception of ourselves from that of others. When neurons in this brain region were suppressed during the research task, the participants found it challenging to stop projecting their own feelings and experiences onto others (Neuroscience of Empathy, 2013). The brain’s amazing plasticity is proof that people can change for the better if the brain is immersed in enriching environments and with people who teach and model the skills needed and wanted. Empathy can be taught! We all can improve our Emotional Intelligence! Let’s analyze the progression of how empathy is developed from infants into adulthood.
- From 0–12 months of age, infants experience empathic distress, meaning they can experience another’s painful emotional state because they don’t have the ability to differentiate self from others. If you have multiples like I did, this could be a crazy developmental stage: when one cries, the other one chimes in too!
- From 1–6 years, children experience egocentric empathy. They have a concern for others and try to comfort others based on how they were comforted. For example, if an adult offers a cookie to a child who is upset, she is likely to offer a cookie to another who is in distress. They realize the misery of the others is not their own, but they try to determine what to do about another’s misery.
- From 6–9 years, children experience the reciprocal empathy stage. During this stage, children can reciprocate with empathy and also discern if the action is actually helpful to the recipient. They can fully “get into someone’s shoes” even if they don’t agree (Selman, 1980).
- From ages 9–11, the preadolescent is able to react to groups of people’s troubles and feelings. Global issues such as poverty, oppression, homelessness, and natural disasters all become important to them.
In the final stages from ages 11 and up, one enters the conscious empathy stage. This is mature empathy and based on love from the heart. A mature, empathetic person takes action after fully understanding the perspective of another. For those in this age range who have not developed the skills to show empathy to others, it is not too late.
Benefits of Empathy
Empathy brings connectedness and enhances relationships. When we show empathy, we start to understand others and ourselves better.
Empathy clarifies our thoughts and emotions. When we show empathy to others, we actually feel better about ourselves.
Our empathy can be contagious and can help others. When we empathize with others, we show others how to label feelings. We also show it is alright to have those feelings, and it is acceptable to be upset and in control. We show others how feelings can cause our behaviors and the positive benefits of being more self-aware. We also show how to recognize and accept emotions as part of life, and to honor and respect others’ perspectives. In other words, the empathy I show others can transfer to how they treat others. Empathy breeds empathy.
Empathy can increase oxytocin in both participants. Oxytocin is a naturally occurring neuropeptide and has been proven to increase compassion, empathy, and other affiliative emotional responses. This hormone nicknamed, “the love or cuddle hormone,” can be released when: we hear positive words of encouragement, we experience physical touch from those we love, we are being listened to, we are smiling or laughing, we are in a peaceful state of mind detached from stress, we are exercising, and we are giving to others. In fact, when oxytocin levels increase, people have an easier time with “mind-reading” or truly understanding that person’s perspective. Oxytocin is one of the happy chemicals that flow throughout our brains that creates intimacy, trust, healthy relationships, fidelity, and improves social interactions. It reduces cardiovascular stress and improves our immune system.
Researchers Barraza and Zak (2009) found that empathy toward strangers triggered oxytocin release (47% increase) and subsequent generosity in all genders, but more in females. Another bonus benefit of empathy, it mediates a person’s generosity!
Empathy has the power to transform relationships, which can completely change cultures and how people respond to change, and what is needed most to grow. Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy (2014), states that empathy can improve our relationships, enhance our creativity, rethink our priorities in life, and tackle social problems from everyday prejudice to violent conflicts. His book offers six life-enhancing habits of highly empathic people who connect with others in extraordinary ways. We’ll explore these six and many others in this next section. Let’s fill our empathy toolkit!
“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
How to Get Better at Demonstrating Empathy
- Change our mindsets about how to deal with sad stories or situations.
Put on the mindset, called by Dr. Becky Bailey (2001), the Power of Acceptance, that promotes empathy and change. She said that
- “resistance to ‘what is’ prevents empathy because it prevents us from being able to see another’s point of view. Acceptance is quietly observing what is. From this position, you can see how each person perceives the situation from different perspectives. Truth becomes relative and compassion becomes real. So, rather than act, react, or talk right away, observe calmly and listen to understand the perspective. The moment is as it is – accept it and show your empathy.”
- Take some time to reflect on how your parents delivered empathy to you. How did they model empathy? Do you model it in similar ways? Are you aware of your own emotions and feelings or do you deny your feelings? Were you told growing up “Don’t worry about that,” or “Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about?” We tend to take on those same empathy skills and may need to practice undoing them with more appropriate reactions. Children must experience empathy to acquire it.
- Be aware of false empathy or immature responses to others. We may have received these types of “empathy” so we have used and continue to use these ineffective tools that actually have become habits and mindsets that we need to correct:
- Sharing a similar experience that you had. “That happened to me once, and I…”
- Gushing with sympathetic words like, “You poor thing. That is just horrible!”
- Giving advice and fix-up strategies before fully listening.
- Offering humor to lighten the situation or compare to other’s lives.
- “I hear you, but…” (Replace this phrase with “I hear you, and…”)
- Reassuring by saying: “This will all pass. Everything will be fine.”
The Six Mini Skills to Empathy Mastery (Hoerr, 2017)
Empathy is a set of packaged skills that come together to produce the full effects of empathy.
Actively Listen—Teach children/adults how to pay attention to the speaker so that they can perceive what is not being said. Observe the person’s nonverbals and look him/her compassionately in the eyes.
Understand—Teach children/adults to connect the dots so a full understanding can occur. This step does not mean that agreement must happen. Understanding is taking that person’s situation and connecting to your own schema with the experience.
Internalize—The hardest of these steps is to teach children/adults to place self in other person’s shoes and try to visualize what is being said so he/she can experience speaker’s feelings (step 4).
Project—This step is combined with Step 3 in that we must teach children/adults to imagine how you would react in the same situation.
Plan—Teach children/adults to plan a response to this person and the experience just explained. Some options could be: ask questions to understand better and deeper; paraphrase to show understanding, ask about next steps, etc. This plan is more powerful when there is synergy – implementing the plan together.
Intervene—Act on the plan. Teach children/adults how to plan the WWW—When to Do What and With Whom.
Toolkits for Teacher Leaders, coaches, and principals to help teachers in their building become more empathetic.
- Help teachers understand their students’ lives better. Some schools have their teachers take field trips around the community. If students live in poverty, provide books and training about the research and tools that help these children. Great books: Teaching with Poverty in Mind (Jensen, 2009); Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind (Jensen, 2013).
- Create Compassion Committees in your building to help students, families, and teachers when undesired situations come about. Help everyone take action to show their concern.
- Read the following books as a faculty to better understand how the group of educators can show more empathy: Daring Greatly (2012), Rising Strong (2015), Ghettoside (2015) and High Price (2014).
- In the weekly newsletter, have a quote about empathy and compassion to help them keep it at the center of their thoughts.
- Help teachers challenge their own prejudices and discover the commonalities they have with those they may not “click with.”
- Create goals to become an Empathy-Centered School.
- Teachers should practice radically listening and being vulnerable by removing masks and truly revealing feelings to others so empathetic bonds can start to form.
- Read more fiction books. Researchers in Canada at York University and University of Toronto found that people who read fiction are more capable of understanding others, empathizing, and seeing another person’s perspective than those who read mostly nonfiction. Nonfiction-reading adults actually admitted being less empathic. We need to encourage our students(and teachers) to read more literary fiction since it can actually light up the reader’s brain to help connect with the characters (Paul, 2013)
- Use the Curriculum called: Roots of Empathy. Read these articles and videos to see the amazing results of this curriculum.
What Does an Empathy-Centered School Look and Sound Like?
It’s a school where:
- All teachers have been trained on the topic of empathy through workshops, book studies, newsletters, podcasts, etc.
- All teachers have had deep discussions on their teams about implementing high impact empathy strategies on their teams, in their classrooms, and school-wide.
- Empathy Among All is a goal and a school focus. The principal points out empathetic acts, opportunities to show compassion, shares examples of empathy, and celebrates empathy.
- Children see it modeled by the adults and start to take ownership in their own special way based on their stage of empathy.
- Children receive lessons about how to become more empathetic, role-play empathy-building scenarios, and celebrate acts of compassion.
- Empathy is part of the everyday happenings in the whole building among students, adults, and families.
As Jeffrey Benson says in his blog about radical empathy:
“No one has it easy and everyone wants it to work. Radical empathy asks that we see ourselves, or parts of ourselves, in every student, teacher, parent, and administrator. No one is rejected. Radical empathy pushes us to cross the boundaries between our roles and divisions, and say, ‘Me too.’ More than that, radical empathy recognizes that we may not have the power in this moment to change the conditions of schools, and we can help each other. We must help each other. Helping each other across roles and divisions sets up the affiliations that lead to political and economic changes. Schools can be far far better organizations for learning and teaching. Practicing radical empathy gives us the taste of that reality, by asking us to see the best possible person in every individual.”
Your school can become an Empathy-Centered School with just one teacher asking the rest of the faculty to read this article. This is a great starting point…then watch how contagious empathy can be. This 21st Century should become the Age of Empathy – we actually discover ourselves more and handle our stressors better when we become more interested in the lives of other people. LeAnn is available to jump start this process in your buildings and communities with her professional development series on: Achieving More Than You Can Imagine by Building Trust and Empathy in Your Organization.
Bailey, Becky. (2001). Conscious Discipline. Loving Guidance.
Barraza, JA and Zak PJ. Empathy Toward Strangers Triggers Oxytocin release and subsequent generosity. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2009 Jun;1167:182-9. doi: 10.1111/j. 1749-6632.2009.04504.x
Bergland, Christopher. Oct 10, 2013. The Neuroscience of Empathy: Neuroscientists identify specific brain areas linked to compassion.
Borba, Michele. (2016) Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. New York, NY: Touchstone.
Brown, Brene. (2012) Daring Greatly: How the Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
Goleman, Daniel. (2012) Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
Guo, X; Zheng, L; Wang, H; Zhu, L; Li, J; Wang, Q; Dienes, Z; Yang, Z. (2013). Exposure to Violence Reduces Empathetic Responses to Other’s Pain. Brain and Cognition 82 (2013) 187-191.
Hoerr, Thomas. (2017). The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Jensen, Eric. (2009). Teaching with Poverty in Mind.
Jensen, Eric. (2013). Engaging Student With Poverty in Mind.
Krznaric, Roman. (2015). Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It.
Krznaric, Roman. (Nov. 27, 2012). Six Habits of Highly Empathic People. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/).
Paul, Annie Murphy. (June 3, 2013). “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer.” Time. http://ideas.time.com/2013/06/03/why-we-should-read-literature/
Pink, Daniel. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
Planck, Max. Journal of Neuroscience on October 9, 2013.
Radke-Yarrow & Zahn-Waxler. (1984). The Origins of Empathic Concern. Motivation and Emotion; June 1990, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 107–130.
Rath & Reckmeyer (2009). How Full Is Your Bucket.
Sapolsky, Robert. (Jan 16, 2015). When Stress Rises, Empathy Suffers. The Wall Street Journal.
Shetgiri, Rashmi; Hua Lin; and Glenn Flores. (May 1, 2011). “Is there a Bullying Epidemic?” Trends in Risk and Protective Factors for Bullying in the U.S.