Understanding Empathy to Teach Empathy
By Parfait Bassalé, Author of The Story and Song Centered Pedagogy: A new framework for teaching empathy in the classroom
A few months ago on one of my work trips, I was exchanging with a passenger next to me about our professions. When I introduced myself as an empathy instructor, the gentleman looked at me with such bewilderment and wondered how in the world one can teach empathy. To the inconvenience of the other passengers, we went on spending the next four hours dissecting the construct of empathy, its importance in our current geopolitics and the need for it in our schools.
This post is a condensed version of our conversation; an attempt to unpack the construct with the hope that this will de-mystify it, and as a result, will make the instruction of empathy in our classrooms more intuitive and accessible to everyone. At the end of the post, the reader will find a practical guideline with examples that illustrate ways one can upgrade existing skills taught in core content areas, to effectively teach empathy.
The term “empathy” is often confused with “sympathy” and is used without a thorough understanding of the meta-cognitive complexities involved in its practice. Yes! You read it well!!! It’s practice.
Empathy is not solely something that happens to us or that one has or has not. It is something that one practices. Like a muscle that tones and strengthens when one works out regularly, one’s empathy skills develop as one practices the critical cognitive elements that produce empathetic behavior. I have named these elements the Pillars of Empathy and they derive from a synthesis of the various definitions found in the literature.
One of my favorite quotes on empathy which I believe does and amazing job at summarizing the underpinnings of empathy is the one by Gerdes, Lietz and Segal (2011):
“Empathy is not only a condition, it is an action motivated by affect and cognition.” (Gerdes, Lietz, and Segal, 2011).
Let’s unpack this quote:
Because of genetic make-up some individuals display empathetic behavior more easily than others. It is the idea that after all, we do not come with a table raze but rather with some propensity towards certain things and not others. For some, empathy comes easily, for others, it requires a bit more work.
Empathy is not a passive process. It requires engagement: an individual’s desire to care and to act on a witnessed experience in order to bring about a positive outcome for all involved stakeholders.
Empathy is not detached from emotions. It is driven by the emotions triggered by an experience and the processing of these emotions.
Without cognition, a person’s empathy would be mere projection of one’s own feelings onto others or one’s post traumatic reactions to new experiences that resemble experiences from the past. Cognition is the gate keeper of empathetic response. It filters the emotional affect experienced and guides the quality and appropriateness of responses.
In addition to these four dimensions explained above, the literature also indicates that a person’s ability to take different perspectives (perspective taking) is a strong indicator of that person’s ability to empathize. Perspective taking skills that influence empathy skills fall under two categories: self-awareness and peer-awareness (Bassale, 2013).
Pillars of Empathy
These dimensions of empathy can be organized under three main pillars: Self-awareness, Peer-awareness and Action-taking.
To be self-aware, one must observe, recognize and identify one’s own emotional and behavioral response to an experience. This notion of self-awareness involves cognitive activity. It requires an understanding of one’s own emotional condition, analysis of the condition and its synthesis. This pillar involves the dimensions of condition, affect and cognition described earlier.
To be peer-aware, one must also observe, recognize and identify other people’s emotional and behavioral responses to an experience. This requires cognitive activity. It requires an understanding of emotional cues displayed by people, analysis of these cues and the synthesis of the processed information into a comprehensive interpretation of the situation. It involves the dimensions of affect and cognition described earlier.
To empathize, one must take action. One must respond in a way that is intended to positively impact all stakeholders involved in the experience being witnessed. The actions taken directly result from the processes of being self-aware and peer-aware.
Guidelines for Teaching Empathy
With this understanding of empathy as a canvas, the instruction of empathy becomes easier when one focuses one’s efforts on the three pillars. By developing students’ ability to be self-aware, peer aware and to take actions based on such awareness, one is helping them become empathetic individuals. Below you will find some guidelines for weaving the three pillars into core academic skills. The examples below are skills that are intended to be taught in a High School English Language Arts unit that can be upgraded to teach empathy more effectively.
- Describe how individuals and societies are shaped as a result of interactions, experiences, and the actions of others and themselves.
- Describe how (a) personal story: interactions, experiences and the actions of others and/or one’s own has shaped the way one feels, act and respond to certain situations now.
- Show how individuals and societies are shaped in a similar way.
Skill(s) demonstrated must include awareness and consideration of others’ emotions and triggers.
- Analyze how an author’s use of language, diction, or personal style of writing affects the meaning of their stories.
- Examine how and explain why an author’s particular use of language, diction, or personal style of writing reflects his or her emotional state.
Skill(s) demonstrated must display proficiency of both self and peer awareness
- Analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.
- Analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone for oneself and others from various cultural contexts, including analogies or allusions to other texts.
- Compare these word choices and their impact against alternative choices.
Gerdes, KE., Lietz, CA., Segal, EA. (2011). Measuring empathy in the 21st century: development of an empathy index rooted in social cognitive neuroscience and social justice. Social Work Research.
Bassale, P. (2013). The Story and Song Centered Pedagogy: A new framework for teaching empathy in the classroom. LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing