Teaching Beyond Empathy

Empathy has been held up as the gold standard for social emotional learning for as long as I can remember.  We try, from the youngest ages to build empathy for our students, for our own children, and for ourselves.  This is valuable and it is an excellent starting point for social emotional learning.  Or, it could be a significant reason why social emotional learning stagnates.  The difference, is the ending point.

As I outlined in my previous post (What is Empathy?) Empathy is not simply looking through the eyes of another because logically speaking, that is impossible.*  We can however, take our own feelings and understandings of the world and make an assumption that other people feel a similar way.  The problem I see here is when we cannot generate feelings and understandings that correspond to other people because we lack the relevant experiences in our own lives to understand them.**

So how could teaching empathy create stagnant development in social emotional learning?  If we fail to go beyond empathy by addressing how we respond to those frequently occurring situations in which we have no reference point for empathy, we leave massive gaps in our ability to socially accept and interact with others.  If a specific experience creates feelings in me based upon my frame of the world, yet creates different feelings for you, my attempting to empathize with you could often create a social conflict.

For specific examples just check your social media feeds after a political speech, a major trial, or a shooting.  You will find that many people react differently, their feelings and understanding of the situation starts with relating it to their own experiences.  When I don’t have similar experiences to you, my empathizing doesn’t make sense.  At best, I am making an assumption about what you should be feeling based upon what I know about you and your experiences.  At worst, I am marginalizing your feelings by projecting my own onto you.  Either way, I have left the door open to the possibility of major social conflict.

How do we overcome that gap?  Along with teaching empathy as a relational thinking skill, we must also teach that it often falls short.  All of us must also learn appreciation, acceptance*** and understanding.  Those social emotional learning skills are critical to closing the social loophole created by different experiences.

The greatest path toward this is through listening.  Too often people (I am frequently guilty of this) listen with the intent of responding to direct the conversation toward ourselves.  Listening is not simply the act of taking in information to process it for a response, but also, taking in information from others that allows us to reframe our thoughts.

After last week’s post on Empathy, Sherri Spelic  and her apt twitter handle (@edifiedlistener) responded by talking specifically about generating understanding through listening.  Her ideas fit well within the discussion and I thank her for sharing them and allowing me to share them with you.  She suggests that listening with an open mind means “withholding judgment in the moment and setting aside our drive toward emotional reactivity” and requires “letting the other person be in the spotlight without interruption.”  Think to yourself: how often have I been listening with the simple intent of waiting to respond?

Listening is a skill, it can and should be taught.  Sherri went on to outline some basic ideas for listening skill that I could not possibly explain any better in that we can train ourselves to be more inviting as a listener by starting questions with a paraphrased statement of “you said” and that our questions should “invite the speaker to share more rather than shutting them down.”  These are things we can and should be teaching beyond empathy.

Empathy is an excellent starting point,  but the social emotional learning should only grow and improve.  By teaching acceptance, understanding, appreciation of differences, and most importantly quality listening, we can curb potential for great social misunderstandings and improve social emotional learning for everyone.


* Before beginning to argue this point, please read the link, it lays out the logical argument for why we cannot experience what other people experience in the same way they do

** Again see the previous post for examples and explanation

*** I recently have reworded anywhere I would have originally written tolerance with acceptance.  Tolerating something is not understanding, appreciating, or accepting it.  (I got this from a Voxer group but cannot remember its originator, if it is you please tell me and I will gladly credit you for helping me learn.)


What is Empathy?

Prepare yourself, things are going to get very philosophical in 3…2…1…

Today I saw a graphic, it was a small part of a much longer and generally well written blog post about mindfulness and empathy.  The graphic claimed empathy was seeing through someone’s eyes, hearing through someone’s ears, and feeling with the heart of another.  The quote, originally attributed Alfred Adler, is one that concerns me greatly.  If this is to be our definition of Empathy, how can ANYONE truly develop and experience empathy?

Each of us experiences the world in our own unique way.  We view the world through our lens, one that is shaped by our experiences.  These experiences are uniquely our own.  I cannot truly understand how you experience the world unless I related to something that I have also experienced.  Regardless of whether or not I can relate to your experiences, I certainly cannot share in them in a way that mirrors how you experience them.

The residual quote that comes to mind is, “you can’t judge someone till you walk a mile in their shoes” (insert all jokes about shoe stealing here).  The truth is, even if you wear their shoes, you don’t have their feet!  Empathy is important in helping kids develop a sense of what is right.  How then do we define empathy and, how do we work to instill that value to help our kids develop a strong understanding of virtue?  Why is this important?

Empathy should be defined as being able to relate the presumed feelings of someone else to feelings of your own given any relevant information.  I don’t like getting my foot stepped on, I know it doesn’t feel good for me, thus I won’t step on other feet because I won’t want to cause that feeling in others.  Empathy is an understanding that I feel a certain way when something happens, and thus I do not want to make you feel that way as well.

Why is this an important distinction?  It is important for several reasons.  First, in teaching and developing empathy for our kids.  If the idea is to relate your experiences to someone else’s, you need to have a wide variety of experiences to draw upon.  We build empathy by making the connections frequently.  We model those connections with kids, parents, and staff members, we have those discussions out loud, we help kids make connections between theoretically similar experiences.  By doing that we generate the potential understanding of empathy.

What if kids don’t seem to have or develop empathy?  If kids don’t have the relevant experiences to relate to others, they are going to have a hard time developing empathy.  I see a clear connection between lack of empathy and lack of experiencing something similar.  The question that follows then, is, what do we do if we cannot have the experience base to develop empathy?

The higher level education of empathy needs to include an understanding that I simply cannot have similar experiences to all people.  I cannot be empathetic to someone who experiences certain things, racism, sexism, the death of a child for some examples.  I have nothing within my personal experiences that comes close to those experiences.  The best I can do is recognize that I do not understand those experiences, that they are in many ways beyond me.  We should be teaching kids to relate to others on this higher level.  I cannot be empathetic to people who experience certain things based on my limitations and experiences.  I can however accept those limitations, accept that other people have feelings and experiences that are alien from my own, and that I can accept them without qualification.  No matter how much I read about, talk to, or even witness these experiences, they will never relate closely to my own.  I will never be empathetic, but I can be accepting and supportive.  I can listen and allow others to have such feelings/experiences without projecting myself on them, because I know they are not my own.

Ultimately empathy is a great starting point, but often we talk about empathy as if it were the gold standard in social interaction.  The reality is empathy is very limited.  It is a great starting point in many ways, but we need to teach far beyond empathy.  We need to teach kids to accept others, to recognized and respect differences, and appreciate when a lack of empathy is not only normal, but appropriate.  Only then will kids take a serious step into higher levels of social understanding and acceptance.   All of this starts with an understanding of what Empathy really is, and what it is not.

Thanks for the Push Back

I have a two great fears when ever I add in my ideas, opinions, and experiences: either my ideas will be ignored as contrarian, or even worse, they will go unchallenged.  They are not fears that cause me to keep me from sharing.  I question many things.  Questioning is my way of digging into an idea and developing my learning.  In person this is simple because I can continue the line of questioning until I understand the reasoning or premise behind a decision.  During more asynchronous conversations that arise on social media I find myself with the worry of being misunderstood.

Today on two separate occasions, I heard people thank me for pushing back.  I despise the echo chamber where everyone says how fantastic everything is rather than question what is being said.  There is a place for the, “I completely agree” but not at the expense of learning, improving, and developing growth.  Hearing the kind words of appreciation for pushing back and offering potentially different perspectives reminded me of how important it is to find alternate viewpoints.

Education is a field in which we are constantly making decisions.  We base those decisions on research, experience, and a relatively quick judgement of all the relevant factors.  Thus, hearing from a variety of voices, from people who identify viewpoints other than your own, creates a greater understanding of the issue and leads to a better solution to most problems.  You may not decide that the person’s viewpoint is correct, but it provides you with a potential to improve your own position.  Learning is not generally a point A to point B endeavor, but one that takes many detours and rarely has an end point.  For all of the people who push back, who challenge me to strengthen my own learning and ideas, thank you.  I appreciate the pushback!