Empathy To The Rescue


Written By: Barbara Gruener

After 34 years in the classroom, I retired from school in May. And while there’s a lot of stuff I’ll forget as my distance from school widens and my memory fades, one thing I won’t ever forget is my final faculty meeting, right before our district’s retirement luncheon. Unfortunately,  I’m not remembering it because we got to bond over something super fun, like a Potato Launch or a Turkey Bowl. Nope. It’s memorable because we were talking about school safety, in particular, whether or not to adopt a School Marshal Plan.

It was in that moment, during that discussion, that this truth shot straight to my heart: The most important thing that we can arm our school family with isn’t a firearm, but empathy.

I’ve been studying this amazing virtue for more than a dozen years now, since I first saw my empathy hero, Dr. Michele Borba, on stage in 2007, oozing with passion at the prospect of making our world a better place simply by elevating empathy.

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Check out these simple suggestions that Dr. Borba offered that day:

  • Point out how people are feeling. Say to your child, “Look at that friend. How is s/he feeling? How can you tell?”

  • Ask people how they are feeling. If your child can’t tell how someone is feeling, invite him or her to ask. Consider practicing through role-play; use puppets if it’s less threatening at first.

  • Imagine how people are feeling. Houston Kraft tells us that empathy is intentional imagination. Ask your child how might they be feeling based on where they are, what they’re doing, how they look.

  • Switch roles to feel the other side. Ask what it would feel like if they were that person or in that situation.

  • Imagine what people might want or need. Ask your child what they think that person wants or needs right now. Or later. What might they need in a week or month?

  • Imagine what you might want or need in their situation. Ask your child to switch places. If this were happening to him or her, what would they want or need. Once they’ve answered this question, it’ll be easier to make an actionable plan.

She also added that reading fiction is a strong way to elevate empathy.

But it was when I heard Dr. Borba caution that “dormant empathy does no good,” that everything changed for me and my work with students, staff, and stakeholders.

I dug in deeper, coupling Dr. Borba’s work with the expertise of Daniel Goleman, and I came up with the conclusion that empathy actually gives kindness its why. In fact, it’s a prerequisite.

Consider empathy as a mindset, a cognition; it’s the ability to understand, share the feelings of someone else. Empathy invites us to switch places with another person, to step into their stories, to understand their wants and needs. It’s an exercise in perspective-taking that asks us to consider another’s point of view. But just understanding isn’t enough and can, in fact, lead to empathic distress.

What we need next is for empathy to ripple out as compassion, the affective piece of the puzzle. It’s a heartset. Compassion literally means co-suffering, embracing those needs because of your concern for the misfortune of others. I like to view compassion as thinking with our hearts. Compassion, according to the Dalai Lama, is “a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a deep commitment to try to relieve it.” When empathy is elevated, compassion more easily mobilizes.

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When compassion is on full blast, we’re ready for the behavioral piece of this terrific trio, kindness. Defined as the quality of being kind, doing a kind act or favor, kindness means acting to fill those needs we worked on understanding during the empathy stage, to do something about alleviating the suffering. Simply put, kindness is a skillset that makes empathy actionable

Head. Know it.

Heart. Love it.

Hands. Do it.

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But how can we help elevate empathy? Try setting up situations so that students can experience someone else’s challenges and practice walking in his or her shoes. For example, simulate visual impairment by asking students to do a simple task wearing a blindfold. Put a pencil in their non-dominant hand and invite them to sign their name in the hand that isn’t as skilled at writing. Encourage them to play catch with their feet instead of their hands, to simulate upper-body paralysis. To simulate dyslexia, ask students to write a poem {It’s empathy, it’s empathy; when you put yourself in place of me, that’s empathy.} backward so that when it is reflected in a mirror, it reads perfectly. What other situations might help you unleash empathy, the most powerful weapon around?

Once students have a strong understanding of what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes, let empathy come to the rescue by mobilizing compassion, then jumpstart your kindness crusade to find your school family soaring to new heights in your character building.

For additional reading, check out these related posts:

Student Anxiety, The Empathy Gap, and Social And Emotional Learning by Houston Kraft

Nine Competencies for Teaching Empathy by Michele Borba

There Are Actually Three Types of Empathy by Justin Bariso


About the Author:
Barbara Gruener enjoyed the gift of growing alongside learners from Pre-K through High School for  34 years, first as a Spanish teacher and then as a school counselor. She is the author of The Corner on Character blog and the book What’s Under Your Cape? Her newest passions include hosting her Character Speaks podcast, being a Character Strong teammate, and serving as a mentor and coach.