Is empathy just part of our personality or can it be taught / learned?
Many organisations have empathy as part of their values or competencies with little consideration about whether it can be developed and if it can, how to teach empathy or how to develop it.
The closest many organisations get to venturing into this field is to run ‘emotional intelligence’ courses, which when evaluated turn out to be largely powerpoint led cognitive exercises as opposed to the real development of emotional skills like empathy and emotion regulation. Most such classroom based processes have little or no research base and underpinning of how to teach empathy.
What follows in this briefing is a useful report from a roundtable colloquium of expert witnesses run earlier this year at Virginia Commonwealth University in the USA to discuss how to teach empathy or develop it in classroom/academic/workshop/organisational environments.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another being, whether human or animal, is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference. In other words, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position and see and experience things from their perspective whilst still able to maintain a separation of identity – to understand which are our emotions and views and which are those of the other.
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When you think about it, this is a complex series of emotional and cognitive skills, awareness (consciousness and meta-consciousness – the ability to perceive your consciousness) and dexterity.
A lack of empathy often sits behind the majority of violence including wars, responses to crises like the current migrant crisis, disasters and the like right down to the creation of a blame culture, anger towards others, bullying in the workplace etc.
How to teach empathy
The colloquium identified that when considering how to teach empathy there are five categories of development activities that need to be considered:
How to teach empathy –
- Give students experiential opportunities for building empathy. This includes the following 5 types of activities:
- Observe the emotional experiences of others
- Being given more responsibility
- Learning more about the people around them, particularly people they wouldn’t normally associate with
- Discovering a personal connection with others
- Experiencing a challenge to their previous thoughts about a situation.
- Incorporate empathy into students’ reflection.
- Tutors should incorporate empathy into their personal reflection diaries and self report their empathy levels at the beginning and end of a semester or course.
- Show, demonstrate and develop what is known as ‘the empathy toolbox’. This is a set of skills to have the students consider and actively develop through exercises and real life events that the subsequently reflected upon that are collectively known as the ‘empathy toolbox’. These are:
- Active listening
- Empathic communication
- Cultural competency,
- Entertaining complexity
- Assess and reimagine classroom culture and design. Where classrooms are traditionally laid out with rows of desks facing a multimedia unit and lectern for the lecturer, perhaps another layout could be considered with the tutor wandering around the room and being among the students. Another aspect to consider is group work that shares the learning / teaching among the students – so it is not spoon-fed by the lecturer/teacher/trainer. This is a facilitation exercise.
- Add empathy to the learning objectives/outcomes and graded coursework. While it is not wise to grade someone specifically for not being sufficiently empathetic (this often sets up aversion learning) you should consider that empathy be graded as part of other work, assessment or appraisal.
Whilst this is essentially a classroom based approach about how to teach empathy, the paper does offer some really useful pointers to developing empathy generally.
Reference- Available to members