4 Things you can do RIGHT NOW to Develop Empathy
“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” -Abraham Lincoln
In the 1920s, my grandmother grew up as a Protestant in Northern Ireland. She was not allowed to have any friends who were Catholic because she was taught that “Catholics” were all bad people. There was one Catholic family who lived at the end of her street, in her Protestant neighborhood. This Catholic family was different from the others because they were accepted within the Protestant community. She was allowed to be friends with them. As a matter of fact, the whole Protestant community was friends with them! One day she asked her mother what was different about the Catholic family that lived down the street. Why were they adored by her community while other Catholic families were despised? Her response was, “Because we know them.”
One hundred years later, we still see families ripped apart by a simple difference of opinion. (Even my own family is fragmented over the divisive nature of politics.) Just turn on the news and you may wonder what has happened to our humanity. There is hope! Think about the times in your life you were willing to listen to an opposing viewpoint, take a project you did not believe in, or help a colleague. We are willing to go outside our comfort zones for people we know. Like my grandmother’s family in Protestant Ireland, once we see the humanity, we can overlook the labels. This is empathy. Learning to have empathy towards each other, and then teaching those skills to our children, is how we begin.
- Develop a sense of curiosity instead of desire to change people’s minds.
Teaching Empathy is about recognizing that our experiences shape our views. We all have different experiences that shape our characters, personalities and opinions. Being open to listening to each other’s experiences, allows us to learn more about each other. Being empathetic requires us to want to know about others.
TRY IT: Next time you have a complex conversation with a parent, colleague, administrator, etc. recognize their opinion is valid. Try to see it from their perspective.
No. I mean it. Really listen. If you are just waiting to talk, you are not listening! Listening allows us to bring clarity to a variety of different perspectives. To validate your presence in the conversation, follow up your listening by paraphrasing what was just said.
TRY IT: Next time you are faced with an opposing viewpoint (parent, colleague, administrator, etc.) say this, “I hear what you are saying.” Then paraphrase their main idea so they know you are listening.
- Focus on an intention.
Developing empathy does not mean you will become a “push-over.” Sometimes our words and actions sway us from our intentions. Instead of holding true to what we believe, we get defensive and sometimes lost in messaging.
TRY IT: After truly listening (and paraphrasing), say this, “My intention is to challenge the student; To improve learning; To heal; To… (Insert intention here!) Often, we have similar intentions, but our messaging is offensive, combative, shameful and/or aggressive.
Developing empathy is a skill and like all skills we can practice it. For some, it comes easily. For the rest of us, we need to work on it!
TRY IT: Start practicing with people who love you unconditionally. Develop the ability to be aware, listen and paraphrase with those who do not threaten your ego. Then move outside the circle to colleagues, admin and parents!
Our experiences may be different but they can also bring us together. For example, I am a mother of two amazing children. I bet there are other mothers out there who believe their children are amazing too! It may not seem like much, but allowing ourselves to get to know each other by listening, connecting and relating, will help us become a more empathetic society. Of course, it is not the solution to all of our problems, but it is a good place to start.
In our course, Teaching Empathy, teachers will gain an understanding of the importance of teaching empathy, exercise their own empathy skills, analyze empathetic strategies, consider appropriate actions in response to scenarios and design their own empathy learning activity. Teachers will be armed with knowledge of how our minds work to empathize, provided with strategies to model empathy in the classroom and given time to reflect on their own practices.
My grandmother decided she was going to get to know as many Catholic families as she could so she would like all of them! A more humane future relies on our ability to show empathy towards each other. Let’s all get to know each other a little better!
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