Gift #7: The Essence of Empathy

Do you feel… Do you feel like we do?

-Peter Frampton

I recently read a blog post directed towards administrators of schools and other people in charge of hiring new employees. There, it was claimed that it’s too often the case that we hire applicants based on the right answers rather than truly finding the right people.  When hiring a single teacher can really be a 3 million dollar decision over the course of a 30 year career, it’s clear that we should be taking due diligence in hiring the right people. One of the most important qualities that leads to being a “right people” person, in my humble opinion, is emotional intelligence. A person’s EQ, in many aspects, is more important than an IQ. Additionally, emotional intelligence is far more malleable and able to be influenced by “nurture” versus “nature”. And so, as we search for one last gift to give our students, the gift of understanding feelings seems like a necessary choice.

Nurturing empathy in our children isn’t optional… it’s essential.

-Dr. Michele Borba

According to some definitions, empathy is, at its base, awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people, and is a key element of emotional intelligence. This link between self and others is of utmost importance, because it is how we as individuals understand what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves. In recent studies on sociopathic persons, empathy for others and the ability to understand how others feel is this essential link that is lacking. Like any other neuro-pathways in the brain that can be strengthened, emotional intelligence can be increased with frequent stimulation and intentional reflection.

As teachers, it is our responsibility to create opportunities for students to become aware of emotions and practice empathy for others. If not here, where? If not now, when?

Empathy, and its close cousin compassion, are necessary ingredients to keep a society, inhabited by the same species of homo sapiens that produced the Holocaust, truly just and fair. We need to instill a feeling in our next generation of citizens that as a society, we are all in this together. Even though politics can be contentious and the nation will grapple with numerous social problems, a sense of a shared humanity is essential for our survival. When looking at the political mood in America today, where almost all discourse is uncivil, the utter lack of empathy becomes apparent. “Nobody cares to calm down, to consider what it’s like to walk in the other person’s shoes, to entertain the notion that others may feel the way they do for reasons that are understandable and valid. Instead today’s America, from our presidential candidates to our blogosphere and major media, more often thrives on outrage, emotion, and personal attacks.” (Niose, 2016)

There are three steps that we focus on when attempting to give kids the skills they need to build emotional intelligence in the classroom and in our home.

  1. Listen to their internal voices to better understand their own feelings.
  2. Notice their own feelings and the feelings of others more often.
  3. Understand the feelings of others in order to guide their actions and interactions.

One of the most frequent things I consciously do to teach empathy is ask kids how certain actions made them feel. Specifically, if someone comes to me telling (or tattling) about the actions of another student, my first question is usually, “how did that make you feel?” My follow up to that is, “did you let them know how that made you feel?” More often than not, kids have not spoken about their feelings to let the other person know how their actions affected them. When the conversation turns from “what you did” to “how you made them feel”, the reaction of children is often much softer and less defensive. Honestly, kids don’t often think about how their actions might make someone else feel, let alone think about how they would feel if they were in the opposite person’s shoes. We need to have our attention focused on the feelings and restoring them to their original state in order to grow this awareness.

Here are some specific actions that anyone can take to help children develop their emotional vocabulary, which in turn leads to greater ability to empathize with others:

  • Point out others who are experiencing strong emotions; a boy having a meltdown at a supermarket, a girl who is crying at a fallen ice cream, a smiling teacher at the start of a school day. Ask your child how they must be feeling and how they can tell.
  • Talk about your own feelings openly and often. At the dinner table, ask about a time during the day when they felt happy, sad, excited, or scared.
  • Differentiate between similar emotions. Give them the vocabulary to be specific when they talk about their feelings. Are you feeling sad or disappointed? Betrayed or jealous? Exploring nuances helps kids navigate their feelings.
  • Watch Inside Out! The people at Pixar really got it right in that movie.
Image result for inside out
Fear, Disgust, Sadness, Joy, and Anger are the perfect cast to start the conversation about emotions. Even the youngest child can relate to the feelings that live inside Riley’s brain.

In the Classroom, Visible Thinking Routines Can Be Used Frequently to Promote Consideration of Others’ Viewpoints:

Step Inside

Circle of View Points

Here Now / There Then

A Reporter’s Notebook

Tug of War

Essential Professional Reading:

I had the good fortune to hear Dr. Borba speak to a group of parents in an affluent district in Southeast Michigan in 2017. Her message was incredible. Follow her on Twitter @micheleborba

Books to Share as Read Alouds:

Wise Words to Share with Students

  • Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.
  • Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting an invisible battle you know nothing about.
  • What lies before us and lies behind us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
  • Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, hearing with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.
  • The opposite of anger is not calmness, it’s empathy.
  • Empathy is finding echoes of another person in yourself.
  • If you find yourself saying, “I’m just being honest”, chances are you’ve just been unkind. Honesty doesn’t heal, empathy does.

Good to Watch with Kids

Not for Kids, but Good to Watch

A Final, Presidential, Thought

I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this, when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers; it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

-Barack Obama, 2006

Niose, David. “Beware America’s Shocking Loss of Empathy”.  Psychology TodayRetrieved Here on 13 June, 2017.

The greatest gift we have as human beings is the power of empathy.


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