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.)


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