Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (March 2, 2017)
As a Character Educator, I have always been a supporter of teaching empathy where empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In a way that I think best describes it is the ability to ‘step into someone’s shoes’, to be able to step into a person’s situation figuratively and to see things from his or her perspective. It’s a skill that enables people to build connection, nurture relationships and create kind communities.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy but they are vastly different. Sympathy says “I feel bad for you” whereas empathy says “I feel what you feel”. Sympathy looks down on the other person whereas empathy walks alongside the person. Sympathy is being thankful you’re not in the situation as the other person; empathy is choosing to figuratively put yourself in the situation of the other person.
I had an interesting conversation today with someone from the business world who shared the importance of empathy in business. As I did more research, I came across an organisation called Empathy Business (http://www.theempathybusiness.co.uk) which analyses companies based on a series of criteria and ranks them according to their levels of empathy. What their work has found is that empathy is positively correlated with the growth, productivity and earnings of a business. According to their Empathy Index, the top ten empathetic companies increased their market capitalization more than twice as much as the bottom ten companies. Essentially, it means that having empathy is good for business.
And this makes intuitive sense. An empathetic company will be able to understand the needs of its customers and create something that meets their needs. Empathetic bosses will know how to see things from the perspective of his or her staff and likely be more understanding. Empathetic colleagues will know how to care for each other and extend help when needed. And a company that has a culture of empathy will likely retain its customers and staff, leading to better company performance.
Moving from businesses to schools, it has been found that schools that nurture empathy have a more positive school culture, less incidences of bullying and enable students to build better relationships with each other. Some have even found that teaching empathy in schools can lead to higher academic test scores, even though that wasn’t the aim. So empathy isn’t just good for businesses, it’s good for schools.
And businesses and schools can only have a culture of empathy if the people in them are empathetic. So one of the essential things we should be teaching our children, in my opinion, is empathy. And this soft skill can be taught and is a skill that can grow. This skill can be developed in many ways but these are some that I’ve found to have worked well with children:
1. Teaching emotions
So much of having empathy means feeling what others feel and in order to do that, we need to have an understanding of different emotions and when those emotions are felt and what actions and physiological changes are associated with those emotions. Equip children with those ‘feeling words’ so that they know how to express their own feelings but also to identify the feelings of others.
2. Empathy in reading/films
Reading can be a powerful tool in bringing out empathy. Oftentimes when we read a story, we focus on what happened but so much more can be brought out through a story. In exploring the different characters and asking questions like ‘how does he feel here?’ and ‘why do you think he chose to do this?’, gives children an opportunity to ‘step into the shoes’ of the characters and grow in empathy.
3. Experiential learning
There’s nothing like teaching someone to figuratively ‘step into someone’s situation’ than to literally have them ‘step into the situation’. In teaching a child what it’s like to be blind, the most powerful way to do it is to blindfold her and ask her to do a simple task. In experiencing the challenges of being blind, it enables her to have empathy for those who are visually impaired.
4. Service learning
This is a type of experiential learning where children are given the opportunity to engage with others in the community by helping them. Perhaps it’s a visit to the elderly home to serve them food or to teach English to children with autism, these types of hands-on learning gives insight to others that one would not usually have.
The benefits of having empathy on an individual level, on relationships and the society at-large are immense so let’s start growing in empathy and creating empathetic communities.