Empathy – the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes – is something I think about a lot. I’ve written about it before, for example when I talked about what we really know (as opposed to what the headlines pretend we know) about the role of story in developing empathy. (Story as in story, not as in fiction – story can be true, too, and just as powerful if well told.) And I strongly support the work of EmpathyLab.
I’m thinking about it more at the moment because the GESS education conference I’m speaking at in Dubai next week has empathy as its theme.
Teachers need empathy in order to teach their students properly. Without empathy, teachers talk but won’t notice that students can’t hear; without empathy, teachers will say, “Do better, try harder, listen more carefully,” and not understand that if a student’s brain bandwidth is overwhelmed and over-occupied, the student cannot obey.
So, empathy requires deep understanding. It requires not just a sense of “There, there, I understand,” but an understanding of human psychology, why people feel and behave as they do and how events and feelings affect them. This is “cognitive empathy” – as opposed to “affective empathy”, which usually comes first and is a more emotional and instinctive reaction of identification of one human with another human. Cognitive empathy is not instinctive: it requires knowledge. it is knowledge-based empathy.
Understanding is EVERYTHING I’m about! Understanding how things work allows us to make them work better, whether it’s a car, a computer or a brain and whether that brain is our own or another human’s.
I can offer strategies to improve mental wellbeing of the teenagers you live or work with, for example, but without understanding the processes that make those strategies work you’re not really empowered. And I want to empower you so that you can empower the young people in your care.
But how can we empathise with someone whose experience we’ve never had?
This question came in another form from a young person training to be a peer mentor for mental health. She asked me,
“How is it possible to empathise when I’m young and I haven’t experienced the bad thing someone comes to me with?”
Yes, experiencing something helps (although it can also hinder because there’s a tendency then to assume that the other person will react to it in exactly the same way, and that’s not necessarily right.) But there are other ways to grow empathy.
Let me illustrate with an example. A year ago, I became a runner. (Stay with me.) I run on the country lanes and typically between three and eight vehicles will pass me on a half hour run. The lane is wide/narrow enough that they don’t have to slow down to pass me but they should, for safety and out of consideration. There are usually no verges for me to run on, though I can leap out of the way if necessary. It’s technically a 60mph zone, though that would be far too fast for the windiness and narrowness.
Some drivers slow down and deliberately pass as far from me as possible; others don’t slow down and make no effort to put any extra distance between me and them. Those latter ones are often terrifying. At least twice, I’ve felt the wind of the side mirror swoosh past. It’s totally unnecessary for them to do that. They might say, in their defence, that they didn’t hit me and were in no danger of doing so.
Those ones do not have empathy. (Unless they are actually trying to scare me, which I doubt, at least in most cases.)
The others, I believe, have empathy.
How have they gained empathy?
- They may be runners themselves, so they have experienced being passed from behind by a fast car on a narrow lane. So, learning from personal experience.
- They may have had the experience relayed to them in a story, either a fictional story or a true story where perhaps a friend or relative has told them how horrible it is being passed by a fast car on a narrow lane. So, learning from vicarious experience.
- Perhaps some are only passing slowly and widely because they’ve been told to but I believe that even that is likely to grow their empathy. “Why should I pass someone slowly and widely? Oh, I see: because it’s really horrible for them otherwise. Yes, I can see it must be, now I come to think about it.”
- They may have had someone explain the situation to them as follows: “Someone who is running on a narrow lane feels vulnerable; they can’t always jump onto a verge, where they might easily trip; it’s a natural reaction and a matter of survival instinct to be afraid of a car coming from behind them as they don’t know whether the driver has seen them; so, if you’re a driver and you slow down, you signal to the runner that you’ve seen them and this allows them not to feel so anxious.” So, learning from knowledge-based understanding.
Knowledge-based understanding is what I aim to give people who come to my sessions, whatever I’m talking about. They come away with stronger cognitive empathy, which empowers them to teach better, relate better and understand better. And, I’d argue, feel better about themselves and understand themselves – self-empathy?! It also, even more importantly, allows them to impart that same knowledge-based understanding to their students (or their own teenagers) empowering them to become active agents of their own learning.
That’s what empathy can do.
Some people will find this easier than others – some just seem to be more empathetic. Some people care more and try harder to see things from another person’s perspective. Others don’t believe in the point of empathy and so may not try so hard to feel their way into other minds. To those, I’d remind that empathy is empowering; it’s not a “soft” skill but a deeply useful one, one that will allow you to do better in your interactions with people around you, including your parenting and including your teaching or managing. Remember: you can makes things (and people) work better when you know how they work.
Anyone who lives, works and communicates with another human being will do so better if they can build their empathy skills.